Teachers: A Word About Teaching Chronology Without Trauma

A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter friend of mine posted a picture of her child's homework. It was a chart with one row for each year of the child's life. The child was invited to write down one significant event in each row, i.e. one for each year.

Unremarkable homework. In the past, I have set such homework myself as a pre-cursor to topics on biography, for instance. I never really thought much about it. The teacher had even put suggestions about what to write: I moved house; I got a new puppy; My brother was born.

But what if the most significant event in a child's life in any particular year was not so positive? What if, instead of writing about how they got a new puppy, the child was to write: my Dad left us; my parents got divorced; I was taken into foster care; my Mum died.

I know that chronology has to be taught at Key Stage 1 (and beyond). And I know that using a child's own life is perhaps the most straightforward way to approach it, but, even at the age of 5, 6 or 7, some children have lived a life that simply will not fit neatly into a series of happy statements on a personal chronology.

In many cases, if living in a nurturing family, even children who have experienced loss and sadness would perhaps have reached a stage where thinking about the events in their lives to date would not trigger them. Perhaps. But for children whose first four or five years of life have included neglect, abuse, removal to foster care and the loss of all they know, followed by removal to a new adoptive family and another loss of all they know, the chances are, some of this will still be raw.

Setting a homework task like the personal chronology places carers and parents of some children in a difficult situation. Should they approach the teacher, ask for something different, risk making their child 'stand out' among their peers? Or should they attempt to navigate through the task, managing their child's emotions as they go?

And what if the child's parent or carer does not know what happened to them in the first year of their life? Or second, or third? While we're on the subject, many carers and adoptive parents do not have baby photos of their children either, so please think twice before asking all your class members to bring in such items.

Chronology has to be taught at Key Stage 1, but there are other ways to go about it. Why not just lose the personal chronology timelines that can be so problematic for so many, and try these other ideas instead:

  • Collect photos of common household or tech items, and photos of their counterparts from decades earlier, e.g. TVs, washing machines, telephones, and ask the children to sort the photos into 'old' and 'new'
  • Bring in photos of yourself (the teacher) spaced out across your life at roughly 5-year intervals. Ask children to sort them chronologically and note how you have changed over time - that should be fun!
  • Ask the children to draw pictures representing each line of a nursery rhyme, and then arrange the pictures in chronological order to create a picture version of the rhyme
  • Take a walk in your local neighbourhood, noting 'old' and 'new' objects and buildings
  • Ask children to sequence stock photos of babies, toddlers, children, teens and adults - no need to bring in their own pictures
  • Choose a particular object/topic and study how it has changed through time, e.g. toys, homes or clothes
  • Read a simple biography to the class and sequence key events from the subject's life

The internet is awash with sites support the teaching of History and English at primary level - many more excellent suggestions will no doubt be found with a quick search. Next time you sit down to plan your lesson on chronology, please do consider the life experiences of the children who will be sitting in your classroom, and try a different approach. Thank you!


  1. Before I ever knew anything about adoption I taught chronology with my year ones. I used photos of myself to sequence because I knew I had children with refugee backgrounds and I knew that they wouldn'the have photos or positive early memories we could use.


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