I am the mother of two children with two very different personalities. My 8-year-old daughter is dreamy and creative. She is prone to getting lost in thought and describes elaborate daydreams that would make great chapter books for kids. She sees the world in pictures and includes drawings on almost all of her homework assignments. My 6-year old son is a bit more practical. He likes schedules, numbers, and information. A memorizer by nature, he takes you at your word and expects honesty in return. I am careful to supply accurate information when he has a question, as he will retain any answer I give him for years to come.
While these opposing learning styles work well at home (she brings him into a world of imaginary thinking and he grounds her in facts and figures), it gets a little complicated in school. My son is breezing through his kindergarten year, enjoying the projects and getting the work done without a worry. He learned to read, by choice, in preschool, and letter sounds and math facts don’t pose much of a challenge for him. His need to memorize has put him ahead of the game as he kept up with his sister’s sight words and language development. The Common Core Standards — which provide clear and consistent learning goals by grade level to help prepare students for college, career, and life — have nothing on this kid.
His sister, however, had a different experience in kindergarten and first grade. Her tendency to get lost in thought slowed her down in the classroom and her preference to learn through play and hands-on experience was largely ignored. Although the Common Core Standards were not yet implemented during her kindergarten year, the preparation had begun, and I saw firsthand the stress that can result from young children being pushed too hard, too soon.
A recent article in The Washington Post addresses a new report by Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood titled, “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”. The authors of the report call for a withdrawal and rewriting of the Common Core Standards for kindergarten due to lack of evidence to support that children must be able to read in kindergarten to achieve academic success later on.
While it can be polarizing at best to discuss Common Core Standards, I tend to agree on this one. The fact is that not all kindergarten students are developmentally ready to read. Sure, you can drill sight words into kids and get them to memorize most frequently used words. You can also force them to read simple text on repeat until they memorize it. But when kids are forced to read before they’re ready, we risk increased levels of stress, anxiety, and school refusal.
Play-based kindergarten classrooms also teach language and literacy skills, but they teach those skills in a framework that is consistent with the child’s cognitive and emotional development. In this need to race to the top and beat all of the other nations at the game of learning, we’ve lost our way. Year by year, we set the bar a little higher and remove just a little bit more of the magic of childhood in the process. And our kids are suffering because of it.
I saw the worry in my daughter’s eyes when the worksheets piled up. I listened at night as she whispered that the others could read but she didn’t know all of the words. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she sat in silent worry. Sometimes she held on just a little bit tighter. But then we shifted gears. Writing was more her thing. She had big ideas and she liked to put those ideas into picture book form. The ideas seem to fly right our her soul and the “books” piled up around the house. She found her own learning style — her own way to thrive.
Parents love to dish out advice, and I was given several options for early reading programs when I casually mentioned that I wasn’t worried about reading in kindergarten. Some said to check out the BOB Books. Others recommended early reader books with familiar characters like Curious George. In hindsight, I might have been seen as a clueless parent (kindergarteners learn to read!), but I ignored all of the advice anyway. I knew that pushing my daughter would only lead to unnecessary tears of frustration. We were fortunate enough to have a teacher her understood her needs. Together, we let her find her way. If she wanted to read out loud, I sat back and listened. More often than not, she curled up in my arms while I read to her.
She’s in second grade now, and I often find her curled up on the couch with a stuffed animal in one hand and a book in the other. She learned to read when she was ready to read, and she’s a better student for it.
It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the race to succeed. Schools turn on the pressure in response to the goals that they need to meet, and parents get caught in the crossfire of keeping up with the standards versus helping their children. It’s time to put an end to this race. Parents need to advocate for their kids. All kids have their own learning styles, and those should be accounted for in the learning process.
Forcing kids to learn beyond their developmental level causes stress, anxiety, and even depression. It leads to sleepless nights and days full of tears and meltdowns. Is it really worth it? I think not. It’s time to take back childhood by putting an end to unnecessary academic stress…even in kindergarten.