Children Have to Grow Up Too Fast

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.
Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores

She waltzes into my room on winged feet -- all 3 feet and a bit of her, with a pixie cut and huge brown eyes. She is Katy (not her real name), and she is in the first grade. As everyone else settles down, Katy twirls in a dizzying display of excess energy. She is wearing her favorite outfit -- a rainbow poncho and a tiara with pink feathers. The rest of the class sits on the rug, crisscross applesauce. They stare up at me expectantly. Katy is trying to lie across my lap and peer up into my face. She slithers down, bounces up again, and moves to her desk to see what treasures might be in her backpack. Her bottom has never touched her chair. I invite her back to the group and sit her right next to me -- her favorite place in the room.

A little young, I tell myself on the first day. Not ready for first grade and the rigors of state standards. I'm new to the school so I do not know her history. Perhaps she's just young for her age. I can't help thinking someone dropped the ball here. She's a kindergartner dressed in first-grade clothing.

When I check her file in the office, I am dumbfounded by an inch-thick IEP folder. This is not good news. An Individualized Education Program usually signals some serious area of concern. The plan spells out goals for the student and how the teacher will monitor and assess the accomplishment of those goals. Benchmarks are set. Meetings are held. I've never had a first grader with an IEP. Most students come equipped with a slim folder holding their vaccination records and birth certificate. What could possibly be wrong with this girl that warrants this level of scrutiny?

The answer: nothing. She has an older brother with a learning disability and anxious parents who want to make sure Katy doesn't "fall through the cracks." I keep reading, looking for a diagnosis, some indication that there is something wrong with this sprite. But the only thing I see is that she "doesn't know her entire alphabet." She can't write all her numbers to thirty. She's "inattentive" during instruction.

There is nothing wrong with Katy except that she is a kindergartner deprived of kindergarten. Ten years ago she would have been in the dress-up corner in front of the mirror, draping feather boas across her thin shoulders. But on this particular day, she's a first grader with an IEP and goals that are unattainable for someone at her stage of development. She will go to special classes three times a week to make up for her "deficits." She will continue to smile boldly, but soon she will start to wonder what is wrong with her. She will leave our classroom three times a week and trudge, not dance, down to room 15. She will start to feel the weight of those goals. The benchmarks will pinch just a bit.

Katy is not my first kindergartner. In the past five years, as expectations have continued to expand at each grade level, teachers have scrambled to help students feel successful. A good proportion of my class is not at grade level. They are taking multiple-choice tests and filling in bubbles with the anxiety of their older siblings. We throw around terms like "algebra" and "response to literature" to six-year-olds who are barely decoding words. We push and cajole and yes, sometimes secretly curse the child with her head in the clouds. We are accountable. We are observed. Our jobs may depend on the ability of our students to understand the subtle distinction between strategies like "predict" and "infer."

There is no kindergarten. It has gone the way of the little red wagon and mud pies. The time when children learned how to go to school, how to use a tricycle, or wait their turn on the swing is gone. These were important skills -- vital to success in the grades to come. We do not have time to teach them now. We have worksheets that need completing. We have take-home books to copy and homework packets to staple. We have accountability.

I look down at Katy while she copies the words from the whiteboard. Every now and then, she holds up her paper for me to see, and smiles. I love how the light dances off the rhinestones on her tiara. And I wonder how long it will be before someone tells her that she can't wear hats in class and she can't dance in the hallways. I will miss the pink feathers and rainbow poncho. But while she is mine, I will dance around the rules just a little and find places for her to stand, not sit. I will teach her what I can to the best of my ability. I will hold off, as long as I can, the weight of the file that dogs her footsteps. And I'll look for a rainbow poncho of my own to remind me that the Katys of this world just might be on the brink of extinction.

Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores
M. Jones is a pseudonym for an elementary school teacher in northern California.

This article originally published on 3/18/2008

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June Arney (not verified)

Evaporating childhoods

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I totally agree with you. The article is really disheartening, but I also found it a great reminder. It made me think back to the rare instances last year when I wasn’t rushing or pushing my kindergarteners and we could really enjoy the magic of the moment in discovering what magnets are all about or whatever it happened to be. This year as a second grade teacher I feel the pressure of testing, and so accountability weighs more heavily on me. I also see that my students have even more responsibility for younger siblings and for their own little lives. You are right. It is our job as teachers to protect their childhoods, because if we don’t, who will? You got me wondering if I am doing a good enough job of that.

June Arney (not verified)

I agree and it inspires me to want to make it different

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I totally agree with you that this article is disheartening. It is so tragically true. And yet, as a new teacher it made me think back to the rare moments of pure joy that I saw and felt with my kindergarteners last year when I wasn't rushing them or pushing them, when we truly had time to enjoy the moment as they experienced the magic of magnets or some such new discovery. I now teach second grade, and I feel the pressure even more because this is now a testing grade. I also see that my second graders have even more responsibility for siblings and their own little livs these days. You are right, it is our job to protect their childhoods, because if we don't do it who will? And it really got me thinking am I doing a good enough job of that?

Candice D. (not verified)

We have to protect all of our Katys...

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This article is truly disheartening. I teach middle school, and last year I had the privilege of working with students in grades Kinder-7. I loved my time spent with the younger students in my school because they taught me so much about myself and made me stop to appreciate life more. My students thrive in learning environments that give them the opportunity to be self-expressive. Our students cannot be conditioned to think that a passing grade or tests are the sole determining factor of their success for the rest of their life--especially at such a young age.

Our students are slowly, but surely, losing their love for life and the opportunity to appreciate a true childhood. They are becoming more apprehensive in the school place when they are bogged down by testing, data tracking, and individualized programs that demand so much of our students. As teachers, we need to make certain that our students are learning new material but not by way of forgetting those things that allow them to be kids.

Many of my students have been raped of their childhood by circumstances beyond their control. I have students who go home to take care of their siblings and some are even responsible for taking care of their parents. Some of my students, many of them younger, come to school with so much baggage. Sometimes, I feel as though school is their only safe haven, and as teachers, we must help protect what's left of their childhood.

Margaret (not verified)

So what should we do as parents?

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I found this article at midnight while searching online for anything that might tell me what to do for my first grade son who has brought home nothing but worksheets for past seven weeks. I agree wholeheartedly with this article, and we were fortunate to have an early childhood school that agreed too. But my creative, interested, imaginative child comes home with worksheets and can tell me of nothing that interested him all day. Even in the GT class he's stuck in front of a computer doing word games. So do I find a private school? What do I look for? How do I honor him and yet make sure he's prepared for the grueling years ahead? And please don't say homeschool. I want professionals to be my educational partner. How can parents have a voice?

Hugo Cigarroa (not verified)

It's so true, and so sad

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Unfortunately an article like this has to be written in order to realize what's happening to our children. I teach high school students who come from tough neighborhoods and witness more than most people do by the age of 15. I remember the day my 17-20 year old students went crazy for some stickers as a prize. Or the day they enjoyed working on a Spanish color by number worksheet, even though most of them had seen someone get shot, or on drugs, and even sell drugs, they were kids. It is very sad to think that our children are feeling this pressure at the age of 5, an age that I was able to enjoy by playing outside or coloring, I was a kid. This disappearance of the traditional childhood is an injustice that our society is doing to our future, so lets make sure that as parents, future parents, or teachers, we remember that our children are KIDS.

Jenn (not verified)

Completely AGREE!!!!

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Thank you for such a wonderful article. We choose to home school our children (the eldest is 5 in Kindergarten, with his younger brothers happy to join us in our lessons). I often feel like we're not doing enough....that we'll be behind, but then it is good to be reminded that they are children. These days of playing pretend, building sand castles, and "inventing" new things will soon come to an end (when "real school" hits in the years to come), it is good to be4 reminded that they are just children. Young children. Thank you!

Katarina (not verified)

Good Luck!! I enjoyed reading

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Good Luck!! I enjoyed reading your posting. Although I am a preschool teacher, I totally understand that in today's circumstances, where teachers are told what children need to know and when they need to know it, homeschooling is quite a good option until things change. However, I try to let the children in my classroom be children as long as they need and try to find solutions on how to attain the "curriculum" goal, not interfering in their childhood development.

Katarina (not verified)

Beautiful!!! I whole heatedly

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Beautiful!!!

I whole heatedly agree that something needs to be done.
The article is touchingly written. I, myself, have a "Katy" like this in my room and I feel the same way when I look at her.
Are children allowed to be children? Yes. Children are capable of learning billions of concepts, but... isn't it so important for them to live their childhood as long as it lasts? They learn while being children... I loved reading your article!

Homeschooling MOM (not verified)

This story is exactly one of

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This story is exactly one of the reasons we are homeschooling our two boys. Kids are expected to grow up too fast. So what if they don't know their abc's or can memorize their multiplication tables, what's important is that they know how to be kind to others, tell the truth, explore to learn, come up with new ideas, work as part of a group (family)...not conform to what some degreed professional says they should be. My boys play outside, have no homework, build things, and love each other and their frieds to a fault. They are kind, they can speak to any adult in very articulate ways, they are honest and helpful. I say all kids should be kept home until they are ready to face the world. For us, that may not be until college, for now, my 3 and 6 year old boys will be just that...boys.

Laura (not verified)

My daughter is in 1st grade

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My daughter is in 1st grade & I am still stunned by what they expected from children this young. As a kindergartener, she had to give oral presentations w/ visual aides and had quite a bit of homework every night. This year she continues to have increasing amounts of homework. Although she does well, my poor daughter has hardly any time to just be a kid anymore. When I was in 1st grade I remember coming home & riding my bike, but my daughter has homework plus reading assignments every night. I watch her become more tired & grumpy as the week progresses....understandably so. She is way too young for these pressures. Our school system also has an accelerated reader program which is meant to encourage reading. I understand the direction they were trying to take with this program. However, I watch this program zap the fun out of reading in child after child. They have to read books to take tests (everyday) & earn points. It is a competition for them....all about the points. Plus...if enough points are not earned, a child will be excluded from a dance party held during school hours! Punishment for difficulty in reading.....it really blows my mind. Reading is supposed to be fun....not a chore....especially when you are 5, 6, & 7 years old! Encouragement not exclusion should be the motivators. What do you do & where do you start to encourage a more child centered approach in the schools?

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