Kindergarten in Perspective: How Parents can Help their Children Flourish in “the Garden”

Kindergarten in Perspective: How Parents can Help their Children Flourish in “the Garden”

I had the opportunity to meet with a group of preschool parents recently to see what topics they might be interested in for parenting workshops. I asked them what they wanted to know more about, what was on their minds as parents and what was keeping them up at night. Since our meeting I’m the one getting up at night, concerned about them. I don’t worry as much about their kids, because as we all know children are resilient. But the fear and anxiety in these mothers’ eyes and postures haunts me in my dreams.

Their main concern as parents? Where to send their kids to Kindergarten and how to choose the “best” program or school. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Kindergarten these days. Not because I have a child who is in Kindergarten, or anywhere near the age of 5. Mine was in Kindergarten 18 years ago. But I have been speaking to a lot of parents who are preparing to select a Kindergarten program for their children or preparing for the transition from pre-K to Kindergarten, and their anticipatory anxiety is palpable. I get it.

I’ve also been talking to a lot of teachers who currently teach Kindergarten or who recently retired from teaching that grade. They are disillusioned. I don’t blame them.

While earning my degrees in developmental psychology and education, I read a lot of scholarly articles about how children learn, play, and socialize, and how the skills and dispositions they acquire in early childhood lay the foundation for their future success. As a current student of positive psychology I’ve been learning about what it takes for us to flourish.

I’m afraid that there’s a serious disconnect between what the research says (and what we as parents have known all along) and what Kindergarten may have become. I’m sure (I hope) that this is not the case for all schools or all classrooms, and it would be unfair (and unscientific) of me to generalize beyond what I have heard and observed, but I am deeply concerned that many of today’s Kindergartens, whether in public, private, or charter schools, no longer even resemble its original definition and intention.

Literally, “Kindergarten,” in German, means “children’s garden.” Wikipedia describes it as “a preschool educational approach traditionally based on playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition from home to school.” The more modern definition of Kindergarten has morphed into “a school or class that prepares children for first grade.” The operative word here is “prepares” and preparation for what comes next has become the sole focus of today’s curriculum, at the expense of what children need to thrive in the present. Teachers are so busy preparing students for first grade – and assessing their readiness – that there’s no room to acknowledge that their students have a full year before they are expected to function like first graders. They are 5 or 6 years old and many are not necessarily developmentally ready to learn in ways that demand them to read, write, or complete math worksheets. But they are ready to learn through “playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction” — i.e., what is developmentally appropriate for their age and stage of development.

In one of my recent meetings with Kindergarten teachers I asked them to describe to me the flow of their school day. What I heard shocked me. There is no art. There is no music. There is no time for anything that doesn’t involve test prep. There are a lot of worksheets to complete in class, and weekly (graded!) packets sent home as homework. There are regular tests of reading and math skills, administered on the computer. Some are mandated by the district, others by the state, and still others that are required by the federal government, to demonstrate that students are meeting standards of the Common Core. As I listened, my smile began to fade, and the color drained from my face. They asked me if I was getting a headache yet. No headache, just a stomach ache.

I began to think back to my son’s experience in Kindergarten. It was not a good one. He started the year in a private school, which I had thought would have more leeway in allowing children to play and be more mindful about differences in students’ individual neurological maturation and readiness for the disciplines. I was wrong. By the middle of the year, my bright, enthusiastic and ready-to-learn child wouldn’t get out of the car when I took him to school because he was afraid he’d get sent to the principal’s office, yet again, for failing to select a crayon to write his letters on worksheets in D’Nealian print (I don’t think he ever got past the letter A). When we transferred him to public school for the remainder of the year, the curriculum was just as (if not more) academic, but his teacher was warmer and more nurturing. The playground wasn’t as good, but he got to ride the school bus which he thought was fun.

But enough about me and my child. What does this all mean for you, parents today who are on your own parenting journey? Homeschool? Unschool? Move to Denmark? Short of changing the entire American education system, there are things that are under our control as parents that can make a difference in the lives of our children.

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Here are 10 bits of practical wisdom to help you parent with perspective during the pre-K and Kindergarten years:

  1. Observe and ask questions. When considering a Kindergarten program, make sure you tour the school, visit a few classrooms and observe the class in action. Ask the teachers and administrators questions and have a checklist of things you’ve observed yourself.  Some questions may be: 

    What is the flow of their day? What activities do they engage in throughout the day? How much time is there to move around? If they don’t have dedicated art or music time, how might they incorporate them into other activities? What does the class climate fee like? Is it strict and punitive? Warm and supportive of children’s individual differences? Does the teacher look calm and confident? Do the children look happy? Are they allowed to engage with one another while learning? Is there playtime? Circle time? Does the classroom seem cheerful and bright? Do they incorporate any time outside during the school day? Are they actively teaching non-cognitive skills such as character, dependability, and perseverance?

    Like the college search process you went through for yourself (probably not that long ago) you will get a gut feeling about “goodness of fit.”  Research shows that during the early childhood years it is more important that children are learning in an emotionally healthy atmosphere than in a classroom with an academically demanding curriculum. Studies have demonstrated that it is the social and cooperative skills and that children acquire in preschool and Kindergarten are the factors that best predict their success in adulthood. In other words, it’s more important to learn to get along with others than to read or do math.  

  2. Supplement what may be missing at school. As parents, we can “add back” what the school system may have taken away from our children because of the emphasis on academics and testing. These supplemental activities do not have to be in formal educational settings, but rather, authentically incorporated into at-home daily practices. We can listen to music while preparing dinner, and sing with our children while cleaning up and before bedtime. We can get messy and do creative art projects with them after school, finger paint, or play with clay. (Coloring is even a popular activity now among adults!) We can dance and move freely to rhythms and music. etc. We all know the power of the arts in enriching our lives, calming us when we’re anxious, providing an outlet for creative expression, and helping us flourish.

  3. Don’t stress about the tests. Whether they are chapter tests, standardized tests, or other types of assessments, you need to know what the data is being used for. Ask how they meet the Common Core standards and use testing and assessments in ways that help teachers get to know each student’s individual strengths and track his or her progress? And it’s your job as a parent to put testing in perspective for your child. Try to explain to your child that tests are just ways teachers figure out what you’re learning and what they need to teach you and the other kids in your class. Know that tests do not really “count” and say little about your child’s ability to achieve or true potential at this age. Unfortunately, the way the system is set up teachers can become crazed about testing because the results of standardized tests are used to evaluate and retain them, and are tied to their salary and raises (and school funding), in many cases. If your child stresses or is disappointed about how they performed on a test (some children are particularly anxious about pleasing teachers and parents) tell them that they are always learning new things and their brains can grow every time they learn and they will have many chances to show teachers how much they have learned in school. There is firmly grounded research that children who believe they have a “growth mindset” try harder and persevere academically.

  4. Try not to pay attention to grades. Grades mean nothing about your child at this point (and teachers even admit that). Unless the teacher calls you and asks you to come in to discuss potential real learning issues that should be assessed at this point (in most cases though it is too early in Kindergarten) don’t concern yourself with letter or number grades. Qualitative assessments of your child’s progress (i.e., teacher comments) may yield more useful data than quantitative assessments (test scores and number or letter grades). Know that in Scandinavian countries, reading and math are not formally taught, no less skills graded or tested, until third grade and by then most children are fully ready to acquire and build those skills.

  5. Know the recommendations from experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 10 minutes of homework for K, and 20 minutes maximum for first grade. If they get more than that, talk to the teacher and the administrators at your school. And know that there is solid research that shows that integrating plenty of movement, outdoor activity, art and music throughout the school day and after school supports children’s physical and emotional health and fosters learning.  You have a right to question teachers and administrators about how they are infusing play, music, and art into the curricula. If you’re not satisfied with their answer, understand that they are not providing adequate opportunities for their students to thrive, and think twice about sending your child to that school or program.

  6. Do more fun things after school. Do NOT supplement the Kindergarten day with tutoring. As Alfie Kohn says, kids already have a long day at “work.” Why make them — especially Kindergarteners! — “work a second shift”? Evidence shows that most children will read and acquire basic grade-level math skills by 3rd grade — without remediation.

  7. Focus on the most important lessons of Kindergarten. Developing a love of learning and getting along with others are the most important experiences we should be encouraging among Kindergarten children. Longitudinal studies have shown that the two greatest predictors of success in adulthood can be traced back to developing these dispositions and social skills in preschool and the early grades. Academic skills and achievement in Kindergarten has not been shown to be a strong predictor of later success, but love of learning is. And what employers value most in employees is the ability to work in groups. Believe it or not this important skill is cultivated in Kindergarten.

  8. Keep Kindergarten in perspective. Although we know that what five year olds need most is to PLAY and a lot of their learning is gained through interactive play activities, everything they experience in Kindergarten sets them up for later learning and success. It is unfortunate that some school administrators and curriculum developers have misinterpreted or distorted how the Common Core standards should be implemented and have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” — i.e., taken away non-academic “enrichment” activities such as art, music, circle time, free play, outdoor play, etc. at the expense of spending time preparing for or taking tests. Whether it’s standardized testing based on Common Core or any other type of assessment based on any set of standards, it’s not necessarily the testing that’s to blame for the over-emphasis on academics and excessive time preparing for tests. It’s how the results of those tests are being used and, in some cases, misused.

  9. Have hope. There is awareness on the national level (POTUS) that testing has gone too far, and this attitude is starting to trickle down to the states and local districts. It looks like the pendulum will be swinging the other way, valuing project learning, group learning process, and individual variations in academic readiness and not the pressured one-size-fits-all academics that standardized testing requires. Hopefully soon enough for your kids to benefit from the changes. When you visit schools, ask administrators how they are integrating these changes into their curricula and what types of professional development and coaching opportunities their teachers have available to them.

  10. Believe that you know your child best and you are his/her best advocate. If you see signs that your child is not thriving in Kindergarten, and you have thoroughly worked through the process of speaking with the teacher, administrators, and just don’t think it’s working for your child consider switching classes or schools if you can. It can make all the difference in helping your child flourish. And remember that you know your child better than anyone else.

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