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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Children Have to Grow Up Too Fast

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

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

Comments (99)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

linda barkenbush's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Childhood is not what it used to be. This can be applied across the racial and economic spectrum. There are multiple factors that contribute to this. Children who grow up in a disadvantaged situation may have more responsibility than they can handle and don't get the help they need. Children of privledge are shoved into school, tutoring, and lessons from an ealy age and don't get a chance to explore their own interests. In both scenarios, the children are faced with pressure that may be difficult to handle.Both groups are assessed by high-stakes tests that the school administration puts a great deal of stock in. What is missing from both scenarios is the guidance of both teachers and parents to let them enjoy their childhood while teaching them the skills to function in the adult world. Tese skills are not only academic, but creative and social. The combination would help them to become well adjusted adults.

Vanessa K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read this article and some of the blogs I thought about my first years in school and the first years of school for my children. AS time has passed reseachers and educators somewhere decided our human brains were more capable of coding and decoding information at a much younger age. I believe that children should be allowd to have fun and games such as dress up and pretend should remain a small portion of the Pre-K class and an even smaller portion of the Kindergartner's class. It helps them become created citizens. However, because it has been researched that we can learn certain things at a much younger age we should take advantage of that and make sure I children learn what they can. Katy to me was described as a student in daycare or Pre-K. We need to look at things in the sense that technology has made our world move at a difference pace (not faster or slower - just difference) and as teachers and parents we need to move with whats going on in the world. Katy can play after school or during the weekends. As a child we played in school all day until 1st grade. My children played in daycare and Pre-K, by the time they reached "K" they were beginning to read and I was bragging to the other parents how proud I was of them being able to read. Well had they been playoing in "K" all day they would not have had time to learn how to read. I say this only to say "We can't have everything". I choose to coontrol behavior and teach children at a early age how to behave in different settings and maybe one day we can become teachers agin and not over priced babysitters.

Lea B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find your response compelling. I have found the same lack of interest in school by my nephew when he was in the first grade. He could not find anything good in the day except for recess and gym. He is an active child with an active imagination. An educator with even a hint of creativity could capture his attention. So many teachers are expected to perform in response to data and test scores which unfortunately now begins in elementary school. Instead of teaching children how to think and solve problems creatively we are teaching them to do worksheets and memorize facts to regurgitate on a test. A child's individuality and creativity seriously suffer when there is not an educator to nurture these qualities. There are teachers out there who still work to instill these values into children. My nephew had what I would call a bad teacher in first grade. Now he is in the second grade and has a much better teacher who is working to teach him how to be creative and think. I think he may by the years end lose some of the distrust of school that was ingrained in him in the previous year. He is again talking with some excitement about subjects other than recess.

Janine Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Shawna,

I agree that there should be a balance between school and home, but unfortunately it seems as if many of the parents are either not teaching them these values or do not know what appropriate behavior is themselves. At the school where I am, the parents are oftentimes very aggressive and outspoken and this shows in class with the children. I think that the parents should lay the foundation and we as educators should reinforce it, which I am sure that we all try to do. I don't know if we must necessarily protect their childhood, but we must recognize their interests and try to incorporate them into our day. For example, I moved from Pre-K to first grade this year and I understand that even these "older" students need psychomotor time throughout the day, unfortunately my administration may not see it this same way. I believe that the true balance is providing a fun and engaging environment, while they are getting the skills to prepare them for the next grade. This will probably take me many, many, many more years to master.

Janine Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Marlene,

I remember my days, in what was called TAG, as well. School was fun, academically challenging, and engaging; I don't feel that my class is the former or the latter. I came into 1st grade with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, which is dwindling daily due to numerous demands. I feel that I am being pulled in a hundred different ways and none of them are toward education or the child. It saddens my heart that I have to read pre-scripted lessons and I have been told on several occasions that we have to follow our reading program with "fidelity". I live for the moments in math and science when I am allowed to be more creative and I see their eyes sparkle with interest. My school too is plagued with IEP's, some from teachers who don't know how to manage students and some from parents who want to submit a form for SSI. I am sorry that I sound so bitter, but I feel that we are producing labeled students that will be able to decode, but were never allowed to explore or develop their interests in order to use the skill.

Janine Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that IEPs have a negative connotation because they have become such an involved process, usually for the educator. That being said, if every student had an IEP plan, we all would benefit because we would not feel as if we are just working to identify student's "problem", but rather create a comprehensive plan that addresses, like you said, the strengths, weaknesses, interests and dislikes. We should not be trying to accommodate students to get them through by our standards of success, but rather create standards that will allow them to show their strengths.

Robn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading this article, I am torn between feeling sorry for all of the Katys out there and knowing how much they can absorb at this young age. There has to be a better way than straight lines and worksheets to teach our children. We must keep school fun while integrating our lessons into the day. At the end of the day, they are still only six years old.

Matthew's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This is all I can say. As a first grade teacher I have been in this very same situation. I have my very own Katy this year. She is an exuberant young lady who is full of life, but is not suitable for the first grade classroom. She is only there because of her age, not her abilities. My Katy is in her very first year of school, while most of her peers have been in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. She is a child who has bounced from home to home with no sense of consistency or security. When she entered the classroom for the first time she was overwhelmed, and not in a good way. Now that she is part of the classroom community she wants to constantly be exploring and using her imagination and playing with her peers, but in the days of accountability it is my responsibility to make sure that she is meeting state standards. I now feel like a robber. Like I have taken away this child's right to be a kid. I love to see her face when she is enjoying a moment within my classroom, but these moments are very scarce. Most of our time is spent trying to keep her on track andfocused. I know that all I can do is try to accommodate her free spirit, and take a little of what she brings to school everyday and incorporate it into every aspect of my life. We as educators should all look at our Katies as inspirations to not let childhood disappear.

Matthew's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This is all I can say. As a first grade teacher I have been in this very same situation. I have my very own Katy this year. She is an exuberant young lady who is full of life, but is not suitable for the first grade classroom. She is only there because of her age, not her abilities. My Katy is in her very first year of school, while most of her peers have been in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. She is a child who has bounced from home to home with no sense of consistency or security. When she entered the classroom for the first time she was overwhelmed, and not in a good way. Now that she is part of the classroom community she wants to constantly be exploring and using her imagination and playing with her peers, but in the days of accountability it is my responsibility to make sure that she is meeting state standards. I now feel like a robber. Like I have taken away this child's right to be a kid. I love to see her face when she is enjoying a moment within my classroom, but these moments are very scarce. Most of our time is spent trying to keep her on track andfocused. I know that all I can do is try to accommodate her free spirit, and take a little of what she brings to school everyday and incorporate it into every aspect of my life. We as educators should all look at our Katies as inspirations to not let childhood disappear.

Matthew's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This is all I can say. As a first grade teacher I have been in this very same situation. I have my very own Katy this year. She is an exuberant young lady who is full of life, but is not suitable for the first grade classroom. She is only there because of her age, not her abilities. My Katy is in her very first year of school, while most of her peers have been in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. She is a child who has bounced from home to home with no sense of consistency or security. When she entered the classroom for the first time she was overwhelmed, and not in a good way. Now that she is part of the classroom community she wants to constantly be exploring and using her imagination and playing with her peers, but in the days of accountability it is my responsibility to make sure that she is meeting state standards. I now feel like a robber. Like I have taken away this child's right to be a kid. I love to see her face when she is enjoying a moment within my classroom, but these moments are very scarce. Most of our time is spent trying to keep her on track andfocused. I know that all I can do is try to accommodate her free spirit, and take a little of what she brings to school everyday and incorporate it into every aspect of my life. We as educators should all look at our Katies as inspirations to not let childhood disappear.

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