Saturday, September 05, 2009

What This Teacher Thinks About Early Starts to Kindergarten

Reminders before you read: 1) I've been a kindergarten teacher for fourteen years. 2) I'm a mommy and have been there.

And a tip: You'll probably want to bookmark this one and read it in sections, taking a breather between each one. It's not quite a rant, but there are a few "Hello, McFlyyyyyy" moments that might raise the blood pressure a bit.

It's been my experience that parents rarely thoroughly weigh the *many* pros and cons behind sending their child to kindergarten early (ages four or young-ish five). At most, they'll pick their own top three of each, several of which may not be the most applicable to their child as he or she attempts to motor through our kindergarten experience. No matter the cons, parents will usually push for an early start.
"Well, he is immature, but it's kindergarten."

"She doesn't separate easily from me at all, but you and I can force her into doing it."

"I'm not worried about how he'll be in high school. I know people say boys take longer to mature, but I don't think it'll be a problem. This is just kindergarten, right?"

"How will she learn to be at school if I don't get her into kindergarten now?"

"How will he pass all the state standardized tests if he's not used to school? Kids need to start sooner now in order to have more practice with sitting in desks, taking tests, etc."

"Well, we thought we'd just start him in kindergarten and see, you know, if you think he should be here, but we're pretty sure he's ready."

"He did great with his babysitter last year and the two other kids she had, so he's going to be just fine in a classroom setting."

"He's only having problems because you're not challenging him enough- when he's bored he rolls all over the floor, hits other kids, and screams at the top of his voice. You obviously don't have good classroom management skills."

My personal favorite: "Kindergarten is free after you buy school supplies. Day care costs hundreds of dollars every month."

The comments and rationale make me cringe because though I acknowledge parents as being experts on their children at home and in preschool/social situations, I'm the expert on what happens in our kindergarten classroom. Regardless of the warm fuzzy feelings toward their own childhood kindergarten memories about which parents wax nostalgic or the hopes and dreams for their singular child's start to school, our classroom is a shared space, not merely the background scenery for one student's future memories.

I'm paid to encourage multiple children to think, explore, and take chances, and I'm paid to meet their very individualized learning needs as they pertain to their public school experience. I'm paid to deliver age-appropriate content and curriculum using best teaching practices while meeting state standards. I'm paid to enrich, supplement, guide, intervene, and advocate on my students' behalf during their allotted time with me in our classroom setting.

I'm not a Sunday School teacher, so I'm not responsible for accurately quoting scripture, leading choral renditions of hymns or producing the annual Christmas manger play. I'm not my students' one-on-one weekend babysitter, entertaining each child's every whim, changing their diapers, and putting them to bed before I raid their parents' fridge looking for cold pizza. I'm not the parent who has to "go all-Walmart" on my Super Stars in botched attempts to modify their public behavior despite the fact that several students each year start kindergarten expecting that they ONLY have to follow directions, respect others and follow rules if adults yell. I'm not a sixth grade teacher, nor an eighth grade teacher, nor a high school drama coach, all very specialized grades and content areas. Early childhood education is my expertise and I know when a child is ready, and when s/he is not.

Parenting is a rewarding, emotional, and stressful job. So is teaching. Emotionality can unfortunately create tension between a child's biggest advocates. Parents and teachers have to work hard on both sides to efficiently, accurately and politely communicate to interpret the intentions behind decisions that are made regarding children and their education. Reflecting on my own teaching experience, parents have regularly made assumptions about what I think, many of them incorrect:

~If I suggest a child isn't ready for kindergarten, most parents immediately go on the defense: I either don't like their child, can't do my job (and therefore why would a parent want ME as their child's teacher) or I'm criticizing the parents' choice to start their child early. I'm just a big ol' meanie and think parents are stupid. It couldn't possibly be that I want the best kindergarten experience for EVERY child, even the one who isn't ready yet, could it?

I'm happy to be a kindergarten teacher, I'm happy to be your child's kindergarten teacher, but I will be his/her best teacher and s/he will have the most beneficial kindergarten experience when it's the right time and/or the correct amount of time. "Your child isn't ready for kindergarten" can mean your child isn't ready *this year* or a full-day program isn't the most appropriate for your child at this time. Please bring him or her back next year (or enroll in a half-day or extended-day program if offered), because we'll be waiting!

~Some parents think I'm playing the superiority card when I'm "just" a kindergarten teacher. Whatever grade I teach, I'm employed. My employment means I can put food on my own children's plates, clothes on their backs, and keep a roof over their heads. My husband and I both work outside of the home to provide for our family. Job security and my professional reputation matter to me, so there is no reason for me to purposely jerk parents around or disrespect their children's right to a free and public QUALITY education.

~Parents expect that, while it is my job to meet individual needs, when push comes to shove (sometimes literally in our class!) I must only advocate for their child's interests as they have been able to do for four or five years prior to the start of school. It's not possible- I advocate for at LEAST sixteen students' multiple needs each and every year, and like it or not, the safety and educational requirements of the students who are ready for kindergarten outweigh the behavioral issues demonstrated by a child who has been inappropriately placed in school too early.

~No, I don't think parents are clever or smarter than the system when they leave the state to enroll their underaged and markedly immature child in kindergarten somewhere else with more lenient (and in my opinion, developmentally inappropriate) kindergarten age requirements, returning to our district after a month knowing that we offer reciprocity and therefore "have" to admit him/her as a student. Parents that have gone out of their way to "win" more social and academic difficulties for their child along with affecting the kindergarten experience of his/her of-age peers for not only kindergarten, but every grade and social situation that follows, have made a decision that I personally and professionally do not find admirable.

Closing thoughts:

~ Though it may appear that I'm promoting a once-size (one age) fits-all kindergarten mandate, I'm not. The diverse social and economic backgrounds of parents, children, families, neighborhoods and schools scream out for customized yet developmentally appropriate guidelines to structure pre-school and kindergarten programs throughout our nation. I've taught half-day, extended-day, and full-day programs. Unfortunately, not all are offered to meet the varying needs and readiness of kindergarten aged students thanks to the standardized NCLB model. Until options are made available, schools are going to have to commit to either 1) their testing data and funding or 2) the actual needs of their students, and modify their enrollment-age-requirements accordingly. It's important that parents advocate for whichever choice they believe is most beneficial.

~The push for testing and "school accountability" has caused kindergarten to resemble the "new first grade," when in fact, kindergarten should be kindergarten. If we *must* test kindergarten students and they *must* show measurable growth in reading and math, then only allow children experienced enough, socialized enough and skilled enough to perform those tasks on the required assessments into school OR develop and utilize developmentally appropriate assessments that accurately provide data to guide best teaching. My latest pet peeve is an example of what doesn't work:

Watching five year olds single-clicking both buttons on a PC mouse and bombing their computerized assessments because they have had a single-click MAC at home (or no computer access at all) their entire life prior to kindergarten. What does that assessment really measure, a student's ability to read and recognize numbers, problem solve and comprehend, or the ability to maneuver a piece of equipment with his/her hand while simultaneously attempting to visually track graphics on the computer screen?

Dumping performance anxiety on top of children who have the tendency to still wet their pants and cry isn't the best way to make those kids eager, willing or able to jump through future hoops of school requirements.

~ If you agree that five year olds are in fact, NOT seven year olds, then back out of our classrooms, and let us get on with lacing shapes, tracing letters in pudding, playing house, listening to fantastic stories, sharing, cutting, gluing, building towers, playing letter and number "games," swinging from monkey bars, eating snack, singing "Shake My Sillies Out" and napping. We'll color, paint, pretend, negotiate, take turns, interpret, and share too. Give us time and an emotionally and physically safe place to grow and become accustomed to the shared experience that is school.

~ Stop encouraging parents to hurry their children through their childhood. It's criminal.

You know my mind. If you're interested in an opposing viewpoint, check out The Downside of Redshirting.


  1. WoW! Did someone strike a nerve? I've been reading these but have to admit- I am on both sides! I see the immense immaturity as well as the fact that most of the struggling students can be identified easily as 1) boys and 2) young for their age or summer bdays. Well, my son fits BOTH of those as his bday is July 30th and not even a month after turning the magic 5, he was starting kindergarten AND 1st grade and didn't have much of a difficult time at all EXCEPT for girl issues, but that's a whole different can! Son #2, if his bday was that late, and he is academically and mature as he is right now, I would hold him back, because he is a very different child. I think it all depends VERY much on the individual child, but am also VERY aware of the research as well as the facts as we start every kindergarten year! So far, no regrets about starting Zach early and when we get to high school, we'll cross that bridge when it comes.

  2. I'm a little confused. Is there no cut-off date for age requirements (you mentioned 4 year olds)? I teach K in Maryland and kids have to be 5 by Aug. 31 and attendance is mandatory. So parents really have no choice and we have a wide range of ages and a way too academic curriculum in a economically diverse district. I really dislike NCLB and full-day kindergarten.It seems so simple, just look at the research in early childhood development and have a developmentally appropriate curriculum.I feel your frustration. And I don't think I can take it much longer.

  3. Hi Jan, where I'm teaching there IS an age cut-off, but if students have been allowed into kindergarten programs elsewhere at a younger age, and then move here (and are still four), we have to enroll them, no matter what (making our age-requirement null and void for anyone who wants to travel elsewhere for a month or two and then return- and yes, families do it). It's frustrating, but more so because every student deserves a wonderful and appropriate kindergarten experience in spite of NCLB, and in spite of some parents' choices to rush the process, putting other students on the backburners while teachers allot more time to handling tantrums or inappropriate behaviors that too-young students tend to demonstrate because of their own frustration and immaturity.

    S., it is such a subjective, personal, and emotional experience, determining if a child is ready for kindergarten, but the kiddos who ARE ready no matter their age (so I do allow that there are SOME four or five year olds that can handle the rigors of today's public school/kindergarten's demands) are impacted by having to wait, being interrupted and losing time with their teacher when she or he has more than one or two young ones who are more demanding of time, attention, and intervention. Children of age with specific behavioral or health needs tend to be given a paraprofessional or aide- but behaviors caused by immaturity are no reason to write an IEP or 504 plan just so that child (or children) can come to school when it's convenient for their parents.

    Some kids should have to wait, and their parents shouldn't take it as a knock, a criticism, or a judgement of their parenting skills when a teacher suggests it. The educational partnership that teachers, schools and districts build with parents to benefit students can occasionally begin with this very decision.

    My own preschooler will meet the age requirement for enrollment in kindergarten next year, but with his communication delays and emotionality, my husband and I are seriously considering keeping him out. We are working with his preschool and day care teachers to make that determination because we want not only the most appropriate and best experience for him, but we also don't want to negatively impact the learning of his classmates by sending him with them if he's not ready. The classroom is a shared place, and though he's certainly entitled to be there by law, we feel responsible for the part our son will play in the public education provided to his peers as well.

    It's an interesting balance- especially for teachers who are also parents, isn't it?


    Thanks for reading and sharing!

  4. i completely agree with you...i am a preschool teacher and i am worried i am going to have to start teaching my preschoolers sight words before to preschool we should be focusing on sharing, making friends, communicating our needs, playing house....not learning how to solve a simple word math problem!!!!
    I am so on your side!!

  5. Anonymous1:27 PM

    From my own current, personal experience, and the opinions expressed on your blog, I wonder why the public schools even admit early entrance students to Kindergarten.

    Our child was 1 week past the deadline, so we had the school district test him and admit him. Now we find out that his Kindergarten teacher is on the 'say no to early entrance Kindergartens'.

    As parents, if we had known that our child's K teacher had such a negative response to early entrance kids, we surely would've picked a different teacher or school.

    I completely understand your misgivings and your professional experience with the subject, but if the school district tests students and admits them, then the K teacher should wholly welcome early entrance students without bias.

    FWIW, our K child can read, is great academically, but his teacher says that he is "immature" and does not have enough friends in class. She blames all this on him being an early entrance student and after only 4 weeks of being in class, has suggested that we repeat Kindergarten. (A shameful thought, as my husband and I were top notch students and never failed a subject, let along flunk a grade.)

    Thanks for letting me share.


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!