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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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Sherrie Ross       Lyman, SC's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My 2 granddaughters, ages 3 & 4, are great kite flyers! That's a skill they won't learn in school. I keep them while their mother (my daughter) teaches high school. She wonders if maybe I should be working on handwriting and worksheets with them. I tell her to come watch the joy on their faces when their kites reach the end of the string!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former teaching assistant, I have seen influential parents push until an IEP is written, sometimes bringing in private resources to "prove" the need.

Silicon Valley K teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is the Politics of Education. Jean Piaget explained the stages of intellectual/brain development. At the pre-operational stage, ages 2-7, young children processes information differently than the next stage. Howard Gardner explained that there are seven different types of intelligence. Children absorb concepts through which they are naturally attuned to. Maria Montessori explained child development one hundred years ago. Erik Erickson explained social/emotional intelligence and its importance in child development. David Elkind wrote several books on the subject of 'Hurried Child' and 'burning out kids' with dittos.
Research on music is also detrimental to education. Most students I would guess are musically illiterate. My students come in singing Hip/Hop Rap Songs.
The research has been done. Maybe those mandating the standards have not read the research. These subjects are not taught at the Teacher College I suppose.
I am a Kindergarten teacher. I studied Early Child Development for my AA, BA and a Reading Specialist with a MA degree in Education. I have a sand/water table, little house with stove, refridgerator and couch.There is a practical life table, nature corner and a piano. But the boxes of Reading Programs, English Language Development Programs, Math textbooks are taking up too much of the important space. My kinders are with me 8:25-3:00 each day. There are days we could go to 5pm, really!
My students are English language learners, Spanish is their primary language. I wonder why Kindergarten per se is not mandatory. You don't have to attend. Why not start Kindergarten children at age five by August 27th. Four year olds are too young for the K curriculumn. The cut-off date here is Dec. 2. Some children are four, five and othrs turn six in December. Why do we have bells and factory style buildings as if we were in the industrial age. This is the 21st Technology age.There is much to be said about Educating our future citizens.

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will agree that IEPs properly developed and properly used are invaluable tools. They allow me as a teacher to understand what this student knows and what he/she can do. (Too often my work is catching students for what they don't know and what they can't do.)

Ideally, we should have an Individual Education Plan for each student. Each student is an individual with individual strengths, weaknesses, interests and dislikes. If we re-frame our job as one of helping our students to achieve their own greatest potential, and not one of achieving an artificial "level of achievement," we will grow into a nation and culture populated by thinking learning respectful and rewarded citizens.

Anne Penny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the comments from the gal from Australia, especially when it comes to assigning so much work that worksheets are left unfinished. This really sends a poor message to our children. When my child was in second grade there was no effort on the part of the teacher to be sure that if work or a project was started that it should be completed. The teacher who expects work to be completed shows that he cares about the work that the child does.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so agree with this wonderfully written article. I recall fondly my own kindergarten experience in 1970 - with its arts and craftsy discovery centers and singing and stories. It was where I learned to love school and love learning, something I carried with me even through the rigors of grad school. Now I watch my own daughter, in kindergarten in a public school not unlike the writer's, drag her feet to the school bus everyday, complain ad nauseam about worksheets, and have temper tantrums about the nightly 'busy-work' homework. She has never had a chance to learn to love learning.

Melissa, NC's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree totally with your reply. An IEP, a student support plan, conferences, portfolios, whatever it takes to gain knowledge about a student. The more people working together with a child the better. A teacher's job is to learn all they can about their students, even if there are 30 of them in one room, and find ways to motivate and engage them to learn. If this little girl needs to fly around the room and wear her tiara to gain knowledge or be interested in being in class, then so be it. Long gone are the times of sitting at the desk, arms folded quietly on top, and just listening to the lesson being taught. Kids today need stimulation and response from teachers. They need the material to be interesting and valuable for them as a human. And especially EC students, sometimes more than anything they need the love and support of a teacher to be who they are without ridicule.All this boils down to the "HOW" teachers get students to learn, not the "WHAT" they have to learn. I have only been teaching for 16 years, and I have had to change something within my teaching every year it seems. Times change wether we want them to or not.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we have been pushing the kids too much. I have been teaching for 37 years and have seen many changes. NCLB is one of the worst things that has happened to education. Also, let me add, teachers feel that the "standards", state tests, and accountability have taken the joy out of teaching and learning. The teachers feel the pressure to meet the standards and for their students to pass the state tests. The standards and tests have for some reason become the main focus of education--the deciding factor in many things. The students are judged by them as are the teachers. Funding is attached to them. There is so much paper work attached to attainment of the standards that the teachers don't have enough time to plan.
Please, you need to take your concerns to the state and Federal level where the people making these educational policies have never taught! Please let teachers get back to teaching to the kids not to a test or standards and let the kids get back to learning things that will make them a well rounded indvidual not just a student who has learned how to take tests.

Belinda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we should allow children to be young for as long as they are children. After all, they have only 12 years to be a child, but they have 60+ years to be an adult.

Also, if we had something to offer them after they graduate, I could see the need for pressure to great academic achievement. As it stands now, the moment they graduate they are free to do as they like in terms of their education. Many have no wish to continue in the same pressure cooker they left, and those who want to continue have no means to do so.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need to allow kids to be kids. They will leave childhood soon enough!

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