What This Teacher Thinks About Early Starts to Kindergarten (originally posted at Kindergarten's 3 R's)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 still have the tendency to 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.

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