Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Parents of young children are confronted with an avalanche of choices from sun up to sun down. We have to make decisions about everything from how to feed, clothe, and soothe our kids to how to talk, teach, and read to them. With so many little decisions, it’s easy to drown in the details. And when that happens, we’re at risk of overlooking big-picture matters like kids’ language and reading development. 

To avoid delaying or undermining our kids’ ability to become thriving readers and writers, though, we’ve got to combat decision fatigue throughout their upbringing and schooling. That’s where my GPS framework comes in. It’s an easy-to-follow, three-step decision-making process for parents that’s designed to help get your bearings straight and clarify next steps, from toddlerhood through college.  

  • G is for getting grounded in guidelines
  • P is for pondering personal experience and observations
  • S is for seeking the wisdom of specialists. 

Use it in any parenting situation where you want to be sure to proceed thoughtfully and effectively. This framework can help you find your path, whether you’re worried about your child falling “behind,” considering tutoring or assessments, concerned about a school’s quality, or pondering the effects of screen time.

Here’s an excerpt from my book Reading for Our Lives that describes how to navigate parenting decisions with GPS:

When you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or confused at any point on this years-long journey, use this GPS combination to find your way. Literally, stop and take a moment to assess what’s going on with your child. Consider their age and/or grade and then ground yourself in credible reference material, such as developmental milestone guidelines or kindergarten readiness checklists or state learning standards. Take some time to write out some personal thoughts and observations about your child in the moment, relative to what you’ve read. Then consult with a specialist in the relevant area to help you advance your understanding.  

Guidelines. Well-researched lists of developmental milestones, school readiness checklists, and grade-level learning standards succinctly distill the best thinking on what to expect of kids when. Look to trusted sources, including the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the International Dyslexia Association for helpful distillation of research findings. Keep in mind that these sources provide useful perspective on typical development—not an ideal path, but an average of many paths.

Personal experience. You bring considerable knowledge and expertise to the table, and it’s maximized when you consciously observe your child and your home, purposefully documenting what you see, hear, and experience. Pay attention to the gut feelings, recurring worries, or even feelings of calm and positivity that are all part of daily life with kids. Write down your observations. List your questions. Journal about what you’ve learned and discovered. 

You can collect all of these thoughts in a paper journal on your nightstand or in a notes app on your phone—whatever method is most convenient for you. (Layer in some additional reminders to help you cement the habit, too, whether digital or analog. The best choice between a recurring weekly reminder on your calendar or a Post-it note on your mirror is the prompt you’re most likely to notice and act on.) Journaling, however informal, encourages greater self-awareness and self-knowledge, as well as better attention and attunement to your child’s journey—not to mention a helpful record of your child’s milestones and challenges to share with your village when needed.

Specialist insights. Now, once you’re coming from a place of basic knowledge and awareness, if you sense there’s an issue in your child’s development or you just want to learn more, tap into other people who can help. Sometimes this requires you to expand your network or venture outside of your comfort zone. Ask your pediatrician about the milestone or bring the topic up in a parents’ group. This third step of reaching out, asking questions, and raising issues is critical. It sparks the habit of engaging with others around parenting, counteracts feelings of loneliness, and lessens worries about outside judgment.

All the GPS framework does is codify three steps that many savvy parents already think to do sometimes—so that you’re more likely to repeat them again and again through your parenting years, as you face all manner of challenges, decisions, and issues. You can still consult family and friends, your media of choice, or Google. You’ll just also have a handy prompt to ground your thinking in generally accepted milestones and standards; deep reflection on your child, your family, your aims; and the specific expertise of people working in the space. 

One mom I spoke to noticed that her son was below age-expectations in speech starting at his 9-month doctor’s visit and began monitoring it closely. She brought up the issue with his pediatrician and,when he was still behind at 12 months, got a referral to free speech therapy through their county in Colorado. 

“For me, taking my own concerns seriously and bringing them up with the pediatrician was key. Then the paperwork to get the evaluation took a while, but I tried to stay on top of that,” she explained. “I also think looping in experts does help in this case. We heard a lot of well-meaning family and friends say, ‘so-and-so’s kid didn’t talk at all until she was three, and now she never stops talking’ or ‘all second children talk late.’ Those can be true, but it was also true in our case that our son had a developmental delay, that is about more than just words, but about how he communicates with us.” 

And, as you know, it’s also about his long-term literacy prospects, because oral-language development is so intimately tied to vocabulary, comprehension, and the language of reading instruction.

Reprinted with permission From READING FOR OUR LIVES by Maya Payne Smart, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.