While I bristle at the 'acceleration' of academic expectations in schools today -- a post all its own -- I nonetheless carry a visceral guilt that my child lives with cognitive impairment caused by her having been born early, at 27 weeks and 4 days.
I can hardly write the words without qualifying them -- that every child is unique for a thousand reasons -- but the question remains, and now that my child is in first grade and asking it of herself in the relentless compare-and-compete methodology of public schooling, I have to sit with my fear more formally.
Would my child have an easier time of it if her brain had had 40 weeks to develop 'normally'?
Science says, "Yes."
When babies are born early, their cerebral cortex hasn't ripened -- that's the mantel of gray matter covering the halves of the brain that's responsible for higher functions such as language comprehension and reasoning. Literally, the neurons there that branch out into an electrical constellation as brilliant as the Milky Way haven't had time to mature. They're there, but squished together like a star cluster. And while studies conflict on the finer points, the general takeaway is that preemies are much more likely than full-term kids to have trouble with language development, visual-spatial reasoning, visual-motor abilities, and executive functioning -- the assimilation of information amassed through hearing, sight, taste, touch, or smell, retrieved from memory and extrapolated into the future.
So what does this mean? I suspect it means I'm not crazy or being hypersensitive when I register that my child struggles to recall 'sight words' we JUST went over, as in, five seconds ago. Or that she will mispronounce a word she's used fluently for months, even years. It means that when she doesn't get the concept of counting backwards, she really doesn't get it.
Having no choice, I've settled into an acceptance that helping my child learn is a matter of figuring out how she learns, almost irrelative to others or the 'norm.' I'm not sure I care whether she ever memorizes multiplication tables (not my strong suit either, could you have guessed?), but I do need her to understand why we humans persevere in attempting new things: that there's as much possibility of joy and excitement as there is value in learning from mistakes. Long after she ages out of the damn(ing) standardized testing and longitudinal IQ studies, it's self-awareness that she'll take with her into meaningful work and play.
Instinctively, I think my daughter understands this, and sometimes, she surprises herself. When she was learning to write her name -- a skill that falls off dramatically to this day if she goes any length of time without practice -- Eliza more than once picked up a pencil with her non-dominant hand and wrote her name backwards, right to left, with each letter a mirror image of its correct orientation. I was so shocked, I immediately took a picture of it and e-mailed it to her teachers, her pediatrician, and her grandparents.
I only hope she can remember what it felt like to push the pencil through those motions, backwards or forwards, powered by some small compulsion deep within her, before she looked up to see how the effort would be judged by anyone other than herself.
That's what I'm learning to stay out of the way of.