Learning is NOT Linear: The Ebb and Flow of Learning & Growing, Retreating & Regressing

When I first began studying child development I thought things happened in a pretty linear fashion. First you learn to crawl, then you walk, after that you learn to talk and so on. And if you study information about ages and stages, you can come to the same misinformed conclusion.

But after 20 years of experience with young people, I can tell you for certain, learning is not linear. Children might learn and grow in one area and retreat and regress in another and they can do it all at the very same time. When we forget about the non-linear life experience of learning and growing, we set ourselves up for disappointment and we have unrealistic expectations of our children.

I’m sure you’ve experienced the complete exasperation of staring at your child who could tie her shoes yesterday, but is in a teary puddle on the floor today. Or you’ve seen your toddler go in and out of diapers over the past year. Or maybe you’ve seen your baby feed himself successfully a total of one time.

We tend to get so excited about the developmental milestones that we sometimes forget that there’s an actual person reaching for them. And a person is a hugely complex individual. Lots of factors can impact learning and growth, not the least of which is stress. Unfortunately, children today are experiencing far more chronic stress than our biology has been required to deal with in times past.

I recently read a longitudinal study (I can’t remember exactly where) that showed that when people had grown up in an urban environment, they had more stress hormones in their system as adults when compared with children who grew up in a more rural setting. The conclusion of the study was that the stress of our childhood directly impacts our lifelong release of stress hormones.

Now I’m not trying to give you a guilt trip of you’re raising your kids in an urban environment. There are plenty of benefits to an urban lifestyle. But my point is that children are multidimensional and things like stress can greatly impact learning.

For a child, even a change of routine can be enough to trigger a regression of some kind. And then there are the regressions that seem to come out of nowhere and which we can’t seem to tie to any particular event or experience. The thing is, children are just doing their best to learn and grow in every moment, and sometimes that looks like retreating or regressing into a safer, more familiar experience, like wearing diapers, or baby talk.

OK, so why am I writing about this today? Well, I’ve been working toward night weaning my daughter and it has been a bit of a rocky road. I say working toward because I have been resolving to night wean and then changing my mind for the past month. I know she’s not a fan of the weaning plan and she lets me know that repeatedly and loudly. But I also know that I’ll be a happier mom when I can get a full night’s sleep in bed with my wonderful husband, rather than co-sleeping with my daughter and nursing all night long. And lately it has literally been ALL NIGHT LONG. I’m exhausted.

Meanwhile, my daughter has been learning to read (whoa!) and learning geography at a level I would expect of a six or seven year old. But she still wants to nurse about ten times a day (and all through the night). So, that’s why I needed the reminder that even as a child excels in one area, he might need a little bit of extra time, attention, snuggles and care in some other areas.

And if you think I’m kidding about the geography, here’s a video we recorded to prove her abilities to my brother:

Have you noticed the non-linear nature of learning? How does this show up at your house? I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!

And have a fantastic week, Shelly