10 Ways Kindergarten Can Stop Failing Our Kids

My grandson, like millions of other five- and six-year-olds across the country, is about to start his formal education in kindergarten. Like most kids, he’s a bit worried. He has three important questions about what his new school will be like:

  • Will my teacher be nice?
  • Can I get cookies?
  • Do they have a tiger robot in their toys?

Those are great, age-appropriate questions for a five-year-old to be asking, and I hope starting school brings him and his cohorts enough happy moments to fill those cute, overlarge backpacks they proudly carry around. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little worried for him, and for his peers—worried about our current educational climate and the demands it makes on these littlest learners.

Kindergarten has changed so much over the past decade; it is so much more work and so much less play. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have brought learning standards with higher (and not necessarily developmentally appropriate) expectations of these young children, and the partner of these standards, assessment, plays a huge role in today’s kindergarten classrooms. The validity of using this testing, often administered to five-year-olds before or at the very beginning of kindergarten, to track learning is questionable at best. Children this age aren’t necessarily “test-ready”: they may hesitate to answer a strange adult’s questions, or prefer to stare out the window, and many don’t understand that giving a complete answer actually matters. Sadly, it does.

In short, kindergarten has become the new first (or even second) grade, with kids anxiously filling in bubbles and receiving reading instruction when many can’t even decode words yet. A dozen years ago, the play kitchens and imaginative free play areas disappeared, followed by the loss of blocks and easel paints and most other toys. Time for socialization and play has vanished. We seem to have forgotten that how children learn at this age matters—facts drilled into their heads that have no connection to their life experience, or regard for their development, are both meaningless and quickly forgotten. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Once upon a time we had a different vision for what the kindergarten year should be: a time for play and experimentation and the sorting out of self that leads to further learning. How can we create those kinds of learning environments again? Here are 10 ways schools can stop failing our kids in their earliest years, and begin building passionate learners from the start.

  1. Ensure time to learn through play and time to play for fun. This should be obvious to educators who know anything about child development, but standards for what kids should know generally don’t come with directions about the best way to teach them. Kids learn by doing, manipulating and playing. And in order to learn, they need time to play to recharge their batteries and discover important social skills.
  1. Grant permission to color outside of the lines. Five-year-olds are amazingly creative if we allow them to express themselves. Worksheets and expectations of conformity undermine this. One of my granddaughters was berated in kindergarten for not finishing her “work” because she spent too much time coloring the pictures in the early squares. As my daughter explained it, she had no idea going fast was important —it never had been before.
  1. Employ educators who have patience with developing skills. Zipping, shoe-tying, nose-wiping, opening lunch-foods, and even toileting independently can challenge a five-year-old. Many teachers have told me that dealing with these issues is the worst part about teaching kindergarten. So I wish the kindergarten class of 2015 teachers who both expect and don’t mind these challenges.
  1. Understand that not all kindergarteners are going to be developmentally ready to read, write or take tests. Even though we wish all kids could be readers and writers when they leave kindergarten, some will not be able to do this yet. And that’s okay. When a child’s mind is ready for reading, the light bulb goes on. Before then, the child is more of a parrot than a reader. Unless there is an underlying problem, kids learn to read when they are ready. There’s no shame in not getting it until age six, or even seven.
  1. Expect occasional squirrelly behavior. It’s really hard for these little kids to sit still all day doing work—and not all of them have ADHD and need to be medicated. Early childhood educators understand that kids need hours of free playtime from their earliest days to develop healthy sensory systems that enable their brains to learn. Valerie Strauss recently posted a piece on this issue by Angela Hanscom titled, Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today. It’s worth reading Hanscom’s answer, as she is a pediatric occupational therapist as well as an advocate for more creative play in children’s lives.
  1. Insist that teachers are trained in child development. I always think of kindergarten as the year of sorting everything out. Children generally span over a year age-wise, from the child who just turned five to the child who is already six and was held back. Add to that the huge range of skills and social/emotional ability among children this age; the fact that there will be kids with special needs and learning challenges yet to be indentified; and the reality that, for some children, this is their first exposure to any kind of formal group learning, and you’ve got a challenging mix for any teacher to handle. The best tool a kindergarten teacher can possess is the ability to look at this wide range of behavior, development, experience, skill, and maturity through the eyes of someone well-trained in child development.
  1. Realize that the hardest parts of kindergarten have little to do with academic learning (parents too!). Arrival, lunch, recess, transitions, bathroom routines, and rules in general are really challenging for children this age. Untrained personnel who often have little patience for the needs of five- and six-year-olds often supervise arrival and lunch times. Recess (if allowed) can resemble Lord of the Flies, as kids with developing social skills are left pretty much on their own to negotiate peer interactions. The rules in general often don’t make sense to kindergarteners. In particular, many have trouble figuring out when it is okay to use the bathroom, leading to accidents. If there are specialists (gym, music, art, drama, etc.), these teachers will have different rules and not really know the kids as well as their kindergarten teacher. All in all, it’s a lot to manage for such young children.
  1. Develop a kindergarten curriculum that meets the developmental and social/emotional needs of 5-year-old learners. Kindergarten is definitely the year to differentiate expectations and instruction, as there will be huge differences in what children know and how they behave. The curriculum should still be based in early childhood best practices, not merely a push down of what was formerly first or second grade work. Teaching kids in large groups and expecting them to sit for long periods of time is unrealistic. Learning activity stations and play-based activities are definitely the way to go.
  1. Welcome parents as part of a team working in the best interests of the child. Parents must advocate for their young children because they cannot do it themselves. School principals need to be available to parents and require teachers to listen when parents share anything unique about their child’s needs, learning style, behavior, or life situation. Asking for and allowing help from parents will benefit everyone.
  1. Be sensitive to the child who is chronologically young or has special needs. Among my eight grandkids, I have both issues. Two of the boys have June birthdays, which can be a disadvantage these days because of kids who are red-shirted (held back) and current educational expectations that may not be developmentally appropriate, especially for the youngest students. And kids with special needs who are included in general education classes still have different learning and social challenges that must be understood and addressed. School districts need to avoid pressuring teachers to expect all children to meet standards at the same pace and time, thus ensuring better test scores. And teachers need to walk the talk of differentiated instruction, and be especially empathic to those who may struggle due to age or ability.

Getting back to my grandson’s three questions about kindergarten: with regret, I’ve informed him that cookies will not be served for snack (unhealthy), and there will not be tiger robots in the classroom (in fact, there probably won’t be any toys). But I hope I will eventually be able to respond with a resounding yes to his first question: Will the teacher be nice? In fact, I expect the teacher to honor my grandson’s energy, curiosity, zest for life, and unique interests. I’m not really worried about how much “stuff” he learns. I simply want him to learn to love learning, and be happy, as he begins his formal education. That’s what kindergarten should be all about.


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