It took me years to accept deep down in my heart that Pamela has her own timetable in many aspects of her development. She is doing sixth grade math but learning relationship skills that most infants master--that SHE mastered before she showed signs of autism. Through guided reading, she is working on Year 5 and Year 6 of Ambleside Online but her expressive language skills are more like that of a young child. She keeps copious notes in multiple journals with as much emotional content as a three-year-old child. Many people with autism are extremely scattered in various areas of development.
Today, I can type this without flinching!
To a lesser extent, I think this scattered nature of learning is true for many children. In fact, every educator should read the chapter What Grade Is Betsy? from Understood Betsy because NO CHILD is exactly on grade level in every subject. Every child is different, born a person with unique attributes, unique skills, unique abilities, unique weaknesses, etc. The reason why some homeschoolers let go of grade-level thinking is because they see how every child develops along similar developmental paths BUT at different rates in different areas.
I will go further on a limb of heresy to say this may be why our No Child Left Untested schools are failing. Standardized testing pushes us to treat kids like little robots that are all going to learn at the same pace. Give them the same input, and you should get the same output. Teach them in the same style, and you should get the same results. The human mind is too diverse for that, and such "programming" fails!
The reason why I believe we get stuck on this age-oriented thinking is behaviorism. Our schools hinge around the belief that kids ought to learn the same age-level things at the same time. When kids are very advanced or very delayed, schools fail them. There is no recognition that, to quote Charlotte Mason, "Children are born person!" Behaviorism assumes children are a blank slate and, with the right manipulations at the right time, they will learn what we think they need to learn on a given schedule.
One thing I have learned from reading the extensive biographies required in Ambleside Online is the sketchy formal education of some of the world's most talented people. Look at someone like Laura Ingalls Wilder: she jumped in and out of school, homeschooled sometimes, and attended regular school at others. She earned her teaching certificate at age 15 and yet went back to school when her little rural school was not in session. Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Jane Austen, etc. all had very little formal education and still made incredible contributions to society. People like Nathaniel Bowditch, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver thirsted so much for learning and knowledge, they let nothing stand in their way!
The key is the zone of proximal development. If you push too hard past that zone, then you will develop the habit of frustration (tears and meltdowns). The key is to figure out the zone for each area of learning and life and go from there. This is not unique; in fact, the zone was very predominant in the little one room school house described in many novels and historical fiction.
Here is a great example of what happens when you force a child to work outside of the zone for too long. We pulled Pamela out of school when she was 6.5 years old. She hated anything to do with writing. She screamed at the sight of paper and writing things. WHY? In an effort to get her caught up, they were working her way beyond her zone! She did not have a hand preference, and they were expecting her to learn to write. She did not cross the midline, and they expected her to write. Her pencil grip was nonexistent; she had no strokes (just scribbles); her finger grip was very weak. And yet, they were teaching her to write her name!
We took a one-year sabbatical from writing! We worked on hand preference--she became a leftie within about six months. We did exercises that worked on all of the pre-writing skills mentioned above. After a year, no more tears! She was in the zone, so we spent two more years doing the Kindergarten Handwriting without Tears book. We took our time and made it through the First Grade and Second Grade printing book.
Now, at over a decade later, Pamela loves to write. She has a journal, she makes lists of all kinds of things, she draws, she spends much of her day with pen or pencil and paper--FOR FUN!!!
Charlotte Mason encouraged home educators and helped develop curricula for PNEU schools (schools with her style of teaching). She was aware of the need to stay with the child. She did not recommend teaching the alphabet until the child showed an interest. Then, she recommended using an elaborative style (dialog with the child about the alphabet). She knew that kids usually transitioned from oral to written narration between the ages of 9 to 12. If you look at the ages of the child in various forms (grades), the ages are very fluid. That being said she would not ever accept a child under age 6 into school, no matter how precious, because they still needed lots of freedom and outdoor time and daily life activities. She never used the term zone of proximal development, but she understood the principle and accepted it.