What a SPIKE-plateau Learner is, and How To Keep From Losing Your Mind

One advantage of having three children with patently different personalities, learning styles, and individual struggles is that you are never bored. The flip side of that is constantly feeling like a newbie parent and what am I going to do with this kid?! My first two kids were so completely dissimilar I thought for sure the third would be a breeze and nothing new. I was so wrong.

Lady Bug is what I describe as a SPIKE-plateau learner. Think of it like a graph. Instead of a general upward slope of increasing skills and development at a fairly steady rate, a SPIKE-plateau learner will learn new things seemingly overnight (SPIKE) and then seem to learn nothing new for a very long time (plateau.) And when I say “a very long time” what I mean is “so long that you begin to believe that they will never learn anything new with you ever again, you are clearly totally failing your child, and everyone must be right, maybe I should send her to public school” long. So long that you figure this is probably going to be her developmental level for the rest of her life and you need to accept that this is it forever. A plateau will have you doubting every parenting choice you make and can make it seem like no progress is being made at all. And then one day seemingly out of nowhere she does something brand new and amazing that just blows us all away.

I was just talking to a fellow mother the other day about how the mom-guilt gets easier and you have less of it as you get older and more experienced. And then I was hit with a ton of it when Lady Bug’s latest SPIKE started. I was so thrilled that she was talking and engaging more; did that mean that I wasn’t as accepting of her before the change? I was getting emotionally and socially exhausted by the new, intense level of interaction demand by Lady Bug. But I was afraid to not respond the way she wanted every time because what if that made her decide interaction wasn’t worth it and went back to only engaging me when she wanted juice or crackers? If she went back to any less interactive, I was going to feel personally responsible. Because Mom Guilt.

Here are a few things to remind myself for the next long plateau and SPIKE:

  1. Some of the brand new words Lady Bug started saying were words or concepts she had not been exposed to for at least a month or more. This means that exposing your SPIKE-plateau child to new things is not a waste of time or a teaching failure if they don’t pick it up when you are actively trying to teach it. Expose and teach away, just don’t expect the learning to happen when you’re teaching. Be patient, and don’t worry about moving on. It’s likely going to be retained and just needs more time to process.
  2. This is out of my control. I can’t influence when she is going to SPIKE. I can’t choose which things she’s going to learn. And she is going to learn things despite me, so I can give myself a break when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the new, higher demand for social engagement. (Like saying the Safari Animals poem over and over and over again because she is asking for it for the 40th time that day.)
  3. Loving my daughter where she is at means loving her where she is at the present time. It doesn’t mean I didn’t love her enough when her only regular communications were asking for juice and crackers. It doesn’t mean that I should only love her at that level of communication if she starts doing more. So give yourself a break from the Mom Guilt and just go with it.
  4. Don’t make plans. I’m not saying you can’t have a guideline of what you’d like to expose your SPIKE-plateau learner to. But these learners are inherently unpredictable and thinking that they should know something by a certain time is a set up for frustration. I’m so glad I got Lady Bug as my 3rd child and not my 1st so that I actually have the confidence (usually) to go with the flow instead of arbitrary deadline panic. Child-led/interest-led seems to be the best way to go, with heavy seasoning of unschooling. Which I would have really struggled with first kid around.

If you recognize your child in this, please share you stories so others will know that they’re not alone with these special, crazy-making kids!

3 thoughts on “What a SPIKE-plateau Learner is, and How To Keep From Losing Your Mind

Add yours

  1. My son has been this way since he was born, and so I’m getting a bit better at waiting for the spikes, but it’s still hard. He taught himself to ride a bike at age 4 in the space of a week, but he still refuses to potty train consistently. We’re definitely headed towards the unschooling type school, but he’s only 4 so we’ve got a bit to figure it all out.


  2. I have a 2e child who learns this way with pretty well everything. Over the years, i’ve learned to just carry on and wait for things to suddenly click, but I still get edgy sometimes when the plateau stretches on to the point where she is quite noticeably behind where people might expect her to be. So far, though, the plateau has never failed to be followed by the spike! Since she was a toddler, I have though of this development style as “quantum-leap development”, but I have never heard anyone else describe it before i read this post!


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