From the moment of conception, a series of development phases unfold in children, effectively shaping the course of their lives. These development milestones mark critical tipping points in the learning and growth of children. If a particular milestone is not fully reached, a child’s chances of doing well in the next phase or reaching their full potential are severely limited. It is imperative for parents, caregivers and teachers to understand these milestones so they can play their respective roles in enhancing the learning and development of children.
The first critical development milestone is the first 1 000 days of a child’s life. This covers the period from conception to two years of age. This is a period during which a child has the opportunity for optimum body and brain development and it serves as a foundation of all future development. Failure to nurture a child to develop their body and brain can result in stunting, which is currently estimated to be at 27% amongst children in South Africa. Stunted children are effectively put on the back foot in relation to their optimally developed peers. Such children are likely to be under-achievers in the classroom because of their hampered brain development and are also bound to have mediocre performance in the field of sports due to their physical under development.
Then comes an intangible and illusive milestone in the life of a growing child. This stage is not easy to identify objectively even though it does exist and is real. This refers to the state of a child’s emotional security and it plays a crucial role in facilitating or hampering a child’s cognitive development. A child who is emotionally secure and at ease is likely to have uninhibited cognitive potential as compared to a child whose mind is always in “fight or flight mode” because of emotional insecurity. Unfortunately, emotional security is a milestone that cannot, unlike many of the other learning and development milestones, be permanently achieved because it is subject to a child’s perception of their environment that changes from time to time. Nevertheless, it is important for conditions conducive to emotional security to be created for children to learn and develop optimally.
Another important tipping point happens when they acquire the ability to understand and use language. While language is not the only means by which children get to understand and know their world, it is a crucial vehicle for a child’s ability to learn and develop. Without the ability to understand language, particularly the language of communication at home or the language of teaching and learning at school, a child’s ability to progress is almost inconceivable.
Another key milestone is to have gross and fine motor skills. There are critical body movements that a child should be able to master to optimise their chances of success. There are particular postures in which they should hold their bodies, and movements they should be able to execute in order to do various activities in class such as sitting, reading and writing. For instance, a child should be able to hold their pens or pencils when writing, they should have strong hand-eye coordination and they should be able to hold their books at particular angles and distances when reading.
The learning and development abilities listed above are mostly acquired by children during their early learning and development stages, before they start formal schooling. The next key milestone is the ability to read and write. This is achieved, though not exclusively, when children get started with their formal school education. The beginning stages of this critical skill simply involves the mechanical ability to read and write words correctly without the comprehension of what is being read or written.
Following hot on the heels of being able to read and write is the development of the ability of children to read for meaning. The ability to read and write with understanding is by far the most significant learning and development milestone in a child’s schooling career. This effectively provides the child with an ability to take learning into their own hands without an over-reliance on their teachers or parents. It is for this reason that this phase is often referred to as a stage in which learners ‘read to learn’ as opposed to learn to read (which happens earlier).
In the wake of “reading to learn”, there is a repertoire of critical skills that children start acquiring. The impact of these learning skills is not limited to advancing academic excellence, but also help to accelerate personal and social development. The skills in question include but are not limited to critical thinking skills, note taking skills, study skills, communication skills, listening skills and a broad range of other skills required by children to cope with the demands of the 21st century (e.g. digital literacy, multilingualism, global outlook, networking abilities, etc.).
A final development milestone in the life of a child involves psychosocial development. This refers to the ability of children to cope with a slew of personal and social challenges that they confront on a day-to-day basis. As suggested above, this phase of children’s development has its genesis in the emotional security that children experience much earlier in their lives. In the teenage realm psychosocial development starts to manifest itself sharply as children increasingly become preoccupied with their self-concept and identities as a result of peer influence. Unlike other learning and development stages, it is not easy to give a definitive answer on whether or not a child has “achieved” psychosocial resilience. This milestone is measured by observing the behaviours and attitudes of children in respect of their personal and social relations over time.
In summary, the development of learning skills in children follows a sequential pattern from early life through to the formal school system. The learning and development of certain skills cannot grow effectively unless those preceding them have been fully developed. This underlines the importance of ensuring that the appropriate foundation is built before the next layer of skills is mounted. It confirms the truth behind the age-old thesis propounded by a 6th Century Greek philosopher, Parmenides of Elea: ex hihilo nihil fit (nothing grows from nothing).
Tshikululu’s understanding of the longituditinal development of children from the womb to the world of work has, over the years, positioned the organisation as a dependable source of advice to its partners on a number of fronts. First, Tshikululu is able to work in collaboration with its implementing partners to design bespoke interventions that can maximise the acquisition of children’s learning and development skills as outlined above. Second, we have developed the capacity to work with a wide range of partners to focus attention on specific learning and development indicators that they need to bear in mind when measuring the success of programmes intended for children’s development. This helps organisations to keep focus on outcomes and not just programme inputs and outputs, as is often the case. Lastly, Tshikululu’s knowledge of the education sector acquired over more than 20 years of working in the sector has given us the ability to have meaningful engagements with a broad range of key stakeholders in education, from government officials to other donors and implementing agencies.