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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.

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Tom Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree...with modifications.

On another board, I urged all who read to google Summerhill. I advised that that represents how I feel about education.

At age 65, I am still a child. I play constantly. Kinda like a toned-down Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters.

May we all remain children just a little longer as we flip burgers, teach school, run large corporations.

C. Christian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lets see, when I went to kindergarten, we learned but we also had fun. It was the early 70's, Sesame Street was part of our lessons we sat in the rug and watched Big Bird teach us our letters, the Count taught us our numbers. Our teacher, was a blessing, she taught us the most important things, get along, share, put your things in the cloak closet, wash your hands and color in the lines.
Some how I have been able to complete Elementary School, Middle School and High School, as well as College.
We need to take our children back to kindergarten not this accelarted 1st grade. Not only are we failing our children academically, we are failing them socially. If our children didn't have the academic pressures so early we could teach them the social/emotional and behavioral lessons they are so greatly lacking. Thus ending classes such as EBD. Without the social directions our children need the Special Education system is being overwhelmed. If they do not understand the social expectations, there is no way that a student can be expected to grow in ability in any area.
We need to let our children be children and Damn the Accountability and the Testing.

Peter Henry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

They do know the research. We all do. We've known all these things for 50 years and yet we continue to get it wrong.


Because the people with power in our society are not fundamentally interested in children. They are interested in power and profits, and believe that if education can be steered in the direction of standardization, they will make more money and maintain power.

Let's not kid ourselves here. These are people who are not above invading countries, killing hundreds of thousands, doing whatever they need to realize their objectives. This ain't patty-cake.

It will take a fight or a protracted crisis to reverse the strangle-hold they have over our country.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a "katy", she is my daughter. She is creative, emotional, caring. She has so much knowledge to share and knows an awful lot for 7 BUT she is struggling to read. She is in the process of getting an IEP....mainly because as a parent I need to play the "legislative game"...I have had the testing done....the results were and I quote "She is consistently inconsistent."

You know there are days I am consistently inconsistent and I have managed to live a successful life so far....We could all do a bit better with some "consistently inconsistent" days.....unfortunately we have benchmarks, AYP scores, tests, practice tests, testing of tests and of course the ever present comparisons to other countries globally.

I wish the best for all the "Katys" of the world because without them we lose our zany, creative, empathetic creatures who offer us our light and life and bubbling fountains of love and zaniness. Long Live the Katys!

"Old School"'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"The Good Old Days!! :-0) I love all of your posts. Grandma, keep flying kites with those kiddies. Twenty years from now long after they've forgotten about their DIBELS score in Kindergarten, they remmeber the love they felt sharing the wind with you!

Yes. I too was an elementary child of the 60's and 70's. I attended Kindergarten at four years old (before age cutoffs) in 1965. We had fun. But, fun then meant enjoyment, learning how to "work with others", learning empathy, hearing classic stories, watching PBS, making nice things for our parents. Oh, there was one thing we were tested for......learning to tie our shoes!

I too am a teacher. I constantly hear the calls for research-based decision making. data-driven decision making and standards. Somehow this all this research and data has really become a way for politicians to bash our schools and teachers. Since the dawn of the standards movement, teachers have gradually phased out more and more fun activites because they have too little time and are wary of being belittled or worse.

Yes, an earlier post summarized beautifully...they only have 12 to 18 years to be kids and 60+ years to be adults. Let's allow them to at least have the first couple of years as true children of their imaginations, impulsive creative moments, playfull intuition and time to learn by doing and exploring their world without red pens or tests!!!!!

George Peternel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Scandinavian countries have the highest literacy rates in the world, yet they don't start formal reading instruction until well beyond Kindergarten. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from their successes.

There are many areas of our curriculum that we have traditionally deferred to later grades that we ought to teach sooner, but cramming what was once first grade into Kindergarten seems misguided. We have some rethinking to do.

Dr. Ruth V. Landrón's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that it is true: we must let children to be kids. Althoug kindergarten is primarily for socialitation, we (parents an teachers) are demanding too much learning skills that must be taught lately. We are not allowing them to enjoy life as kids. Possibly, many of today youth problems, have their roots in what schools demands (they are prisioners of social pressure).

Retired Kindergarten teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a recently retired Kindergarten teacher, I now have the time to look back at the students I taught. I often get feedback from these students. They don't talk about the worksheets they did, but about the fun they had dancing around a Maypole, learning lessons in a tent, or making all kinds of things out of recycled milk caps or odd pieces of cardboard. Did they learn math, reading, and writing? Yes, but in the everyday fun ways that are life.

It is heartbreaking to see the things that are mandated and the time frames that are set for these young children. I now see these young children being forced out of that precious time of just being a child. I see children under pressure to measure up to something that should be beyond their present developmental stage in life. Perhaps the people who are setting these new standards should take some time to just sit and watch children in free play. It should be easy to see that they are very successful being exactly who they are...children.

Kimberly S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, childhood has ended, because all children have to do now as far as education wise is focus on TESTS, TESTS, TESTS. In my district, they start testing children at the age of four. They give them a readiness tests to determine if they are socially or mentally ready to enter into the four-year old program (pre-school). Children are tested at least twice every nine-weeks in my district.

The elementary school age children in my opinion, don't have time to run around and be kids because they are constantly be prepared for tests (assessments).

I feel just like one of the other repliers said, "What happened to learning how to tie your shoe or coloring in the line"? These are the some of the things that we should be focusing on as well as teaching them how to be young, productive citizens; whereas, we prepare them for middle and high school so that they can really and truly understand the importance of academics.

Yes, the childhood has ended; but what can we as educators do about it??

Rita's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a college instructor in Early Childhood Education. It literally breaks my heart that childhood has been taken away from our precious children. Society pushes children so hard that we are breaking their spirit and taking away life as we knew it fifty years ago. Parents are listening to society instead of their hearts and they push harder and harder for their child to get ahead. Research shows that you can not make a flower bloom before its time and the same goes for children. Children are our future and we are not taking care of our future. All I hear are test scores instead of how can we keep these children save, keep them innocent, and let them explore the world around them. When will people wake up and see what they are doing to our children? I don't know the answer to that question but I can assure you that my early childhood education students knows what is right and what is not right for young children. Hopefully, they will be advocates and teach the world what childhood is all about.

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