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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

Jake Krause's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every one is making great points about childhood being taken away from our children. Not only are they forced to learn mandated material, but they are not allowed to have fun. This doesn't just apply to school either. Recently I attended a youth football game to watch my young nephew. I came away from the game disgusted with what I had just seen. Coaches yelling at kids about running the wrong play or not being where they were supposed to be on defense. I asked myself what I was doing this at this age. I was out in the big grassy area with about 30 other kids playing kill the man with the football. There were no coaches around trying to explain the strategy behind a play or how they were using it to try to set up the next play. We were running around being kids and having fun. I promised myself right then that I would not allow my daughters to get caught up in these youth sports, not until I had played with them myself in our backyard. I want them to have fun playing and not get caught up in trying to have them ready for high school or college sports by the time they are 10. I see what is happening in the classroom the same way. We are force feeding our students so much information to try to prepare them for standardized tests that we are taking away their discovery of new material. Let kids be kids.

Maurice Frank's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The long term wrecking effect on life, of having wild expectations attached to you, and spending your school-age life with unattainable objectives and constantly seen as offending by letting them down. The accounts that survivors can tell, of the outcome upon the rest if your life of having teachers with this greedy fanatical attitude, are being deliberately excluded from the media and politics. Parents are being deliberately barred from realising the danger before it happens.

Kacie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading this blog it reminded me of my students. I teach middle school intervention English and I was surprised to see the similarities between little Katy and my own 7th and 8th graders. They are pushed through the system with huge gaps in education. They are also required to take state mandated tests in the same manner as other mainstreamed students. It is not fair, and I feel as though my hands are tied. There is also the issue of closing the gaps, but they lack such skills as simply sitting still, and now I am responsible for teaching them the difference between a predicate and a noun. I do funthings in class to grab their attention and help them learn. Other teachers are upset with me because they claim that is not the norm and I am setting them up with a false sense of security. The only security I need to give them is safety in my class and an ability to be a better learner.

Joy A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a preschool teacher I feel I am responsible for teaching four year-olds what they would have learned in kindergarten. We talk about how to be a friend, accepting each other's diversity, sharing, how to walk down the hall, understanding right from wrong, improve our color and shape recognition, how to sit in a group, and more. I even feel pressure to teach them the alphabet (recognition and sounds). Parents are concerned if their child does not know all the letters of the alphabet before kindergarten. This goes to show teachers are not the only ones feeling the pressure for children to perform beyond their developmental levels. I am afraid for my "Katys" that I watch move on to kindergarten, realizing they will have to grow up too fast next school year, as they are expected to learn to read, perform formal arithmetic, and so much more they are not ready for. I have kindergarteners visit my classroom and say how much they miss being able to play at school. When I hear this I am sadden, realizing they should still be "playing" as they learn in kindergarten.

Debra Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was a kindergartener in the late 70's and I can remember having a fun time playing dress up, house, and the occasional learning my letters and alphabet. I had a wonderful time getting to know my friends as well as getting to know myself as a person. I have been teaching kindergarten for seven years now, and when I first started, my classroom contained a home living center, music center, and a reading loft. All of these things are now gone. We have had to make room for the "Old-days First Grade" classroom setting. I miss that my children do not have the time and equipment to be five and six year olds. I try to keep in my mind that they are still babies at heart and I give them a little more down time when possible. I hope one day we can reclaim some of the old ways of kindergarten.

Debra Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was a kindergartener in the early 70's and I can remember having a wonderful time playing dress up, house, and the occasional rehearsing my numbers and letters. It was a time for me to get to know my friends as well as get to know myself as a person. I have been a kindergarten teacher for seven years and when I first began teaching, my classroom was equipped with a home living center, music center, puzzle exploration, and a reading loft. All of those things have disappeared to make room for the "old time way of first grade" items. We no longer have a free choice time for the children. I do try to remember that my students are just five and six year olds and they are still babies. As often as possible, I try to allow a little "down time" for them to explore the items around them as well as explore themselves as I was allowed to do. I hope one day we will be able to replenish our kindergarten classrooms with more age appropriate items and promote self-exploration to our babies.

Eugenia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a Kindergarten teacher, I feel a lot of pressure from my school district to have my students reading and writing by the end of the school year. If I feel this pressure, then my students must be feeling it twice as much. They are expected to do so much more than they used to at their age. It is more like first grade instead of Kindergarten. In my school district, a high percentage of families hold their children back a year before enrolling them into Kindergarten. One of the reasons for this is due to the high expectations and demands they know that their five year old will face. They don't want their child to feel left behind. It is sad to see that playtime, art projects, and recess time is being cut down each year. Some students are just not ready to read and write and the age of five. I think that it is time to slow things down and allow the students to socialize and practice basic skills such as cutting, gluing, correct pencil grip, etc. I try my best to make time for these things, but it is very difficult with the amount of assessments and curriculum that needs to be covered.

Dee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so agree with a lot of those post. I think children are being cheated out of their childhood. when I was little we didn't have kindergarten,but we were taugh at home by our parents, about play, and play we did. My Mother read to us, played with us, and also let us play by ourselves, my brother and I made mud pies, climbed trees, played red rover with the neighbor kids and did all kinds of fun things. Our parents never forced us to do anything but play, we could join any club we wanted when we got bigger but when we were kids we got to be kids. I miss those days. My daughter got to run and play and be a kid even though she had to go to preschool and kindergarten, because at home she got to be a kid. And now that I have two grandsons the same goes to them too, they are allowed to be kids, we have toys all over the yard for them to play and explore with, they might have to go to preschool and kindergarten but at Nanny's house they can just be a kid. I think that is so important for them, we can't take away their play, it is just wrong. That is how they learn is through playing and enteracting with others, dressing up, playing in the sand box, the water table. My daughter had a home made sand box she just loved, you could always find her playing in the sand box, as you will find both of my grandsons they love it. I am going to let my grandkids be a child as long as they like, cause it is way to soon taken away from they .

Lenee Bowles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. I have taught preschoolers for two years and they are expected to learn all letters and sounds and be able to write by the end of the school year if not earlier. These children now a days are not learning how to be social towards one another they are learning how to NOT be social. You can't expect your child to be social if all you concentrate on are studies. Its better to have street smarts and common sense then to be book smart with no common sense.

Martha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your post resonated with me. As a teacher of primarily 11th and 12th grade students, I often am called into sit in on IEP meetings to discuss student deficiencies and short comings. Each time that I sit down at the table with my administration, special education department and the latest student up for discussion, there, sitting on the table glaring back at each one of us, is a multiple-inch-thick "profile" - a tattered folder stamped with the school district seal containing all of the information, data and anecdotal evidence proving that the student of the moment is "not good enough".

As a teacher, in order to maintain my spirit and, quite frankly, sanity, I put forth a serious effort to focus on only what is within my locus of control. I cannot control what did not happen for my students in their past, though I can control every action I take, which is then ultimately a catalyst for their actions in my classroom. Students may be restless, inattentive or lacking skills (or, in some cases, all three combined); however, I know that whatever "childhood" was stolen from them, whatever administrator thought it was better to enforce social promotion - advancing students in school to stay with their peer group, as opposed to making the judgment call based on achievement and meaningful data - I have to push it aside. When they are with me, I am in control. It is up to me to decide, then, how we are going to take these obstacles in front of us and maneuver around them and be successful, no matter what the reason the "profile" says they are "not good enough".

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