Idealist, Perfectionist and Critic: Normal Child Development in the First Grade

Normal Child Development When it comes to children's behavior, it can be hard to know what is part of normal child development, and what you should be truly concerned about.

Brian, normally a free thinker, has started crumpling up his drawings if they are not exactly perfect, saying with frustration, "It's not right!" Easygoing Tatiana has a crying fit when dad wins at a game of Chutes and Ladders. When 6 year old Gabe accidentally knocks a box of crayons to the floor and sees you looking, he yells, "It wasn't me!" Should you be concerned? Is this normal? Rest assured; child development experts assure us that behaviors like these are common in first grade.

It's Hard to Be Perfect

Your first graders are different kids than they were last year. Their exuberant discovery energy has been tempered with a need for structure and predictability. Your seasoned first graders are more focused, precise, and determined to do things exactly right.

Out of the many changes that happen this year as a result of normal child development, one of the most significant can be summed up in one word: "rules". Kids in first grade love rules, cling to boundaries, and would appreciate a how-to book for every part of their life. It's understandable. After years of having parents monitor their every move, they are stepping out on their own, making friends, navigating the school day at a whole other level. They are still insecure about their budding independence, and feel sure that if they can just follow the rules exactly, everything will be fine.

First graders are asking themselves who they need to be, how they should act, and what they need to do to be right with the world. This can be a trying time for everyone as kids can become perfectionists, highly critical, and difficult to satisfy. It may give some comfort to know that your kids are not unique in this; for a more detailed look at these changes, read the article on first grade cognitive development.

Going back to Tatiana's game, let's put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. She is supposed to win this game. After all, to her way of thinking, winning is the point; she can't be perfect if she is losing. One too many times sliding down that dratted chute, and Tati begins to change the rules. She invents: "No Daddy, First Grade Poor Sport ladders don't mean you can go up, you have to go back to the beginning." She lies: "Nuh uh, I was on THIS square." When dad finally ends the game by moving to the finishing square, she breaks down entirely and yells, "You cheated!"

First graders can be rather poor sports when playing games. But it may help to understand that certain areas of normal child development--needing to be right, to win at all costs, and to be seen as perfect--are driving these undesirable behaviors, which may become a bit more common for a while.

The Big Picture

Kids' bodies and brains see many big changes as a result of normal child development in 1st grade. They hit a big growth spurt that is likely to make them feel clumsy and awkward. Kids are struggling with newly developing fine motor skills and sometimes unpredictable gross motor skills, and may become self-conscious or shy. Missing and new teeth are hard to get used to, and the face they see in the mirror seems to change on a daily basis.

Normal Child Development

Because of their newly perfectionist tendencies, these changes can increase the feeling of being off-balanced, and they can be easily embarrassed about imperfections or mistakes. Read up on first graders' physical development to get a good overall sense of the body changes first graders will be experiencing this year.

Language is growing and developing at an amazing rate. First graders are eloquent, creative, and imaginative in their speech and expression. They are at an optimal place for learning new languages, and will pick them up with ease. Their social development begins to reflect their language growth; they begin to solve problems through arguments rather than physical fights, and their rules and imaginative play become more elaborate.

Reading is all-important this year, not just as children learn the code and become more fluent, but also as a window to expanding language and world experience.

The first grade year can be a volatile time, but take heart: your kids are learning many new and valuable lessons, and by the end of the year, you will begin to see more balance and equanimity in your child's emotional development.

In the meantime, if kids get bossy or demanding, or if tantrums reappear, take a deep breath and treat these as important learning opportunities. This, too, shall pass-especially if you are able to stay calm and help your children learn more appropriate ways to deal with life's challenges.

Above all, kids at this age need a surplus of patience, acceptance, and reassurance. They can feel off-center and uncertain, and the learning curve is steep. The huge increase in school information alone is extremely stressful, and when coupled with body changes and social challenges of normal child development, first graders have their work cut out for them. And, as their guide along this journey, so do you.

Understanding that these behaviors are a predictable part of normal child development can go far toward helping adults be more patient and compassionate. Look through the articles below to get a more detailed explanation of the changes that your children are experiencing this year, and suggestions on how to respond to these in healthy and positive ways.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey