'Kinder-Evolution' Concerns Some Parents

Kindergartens have become more like grade school and less like a place for youngsters to socialize.

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Leigh Ann MacDonald Woodruff (Carolina Parent staff writer)
Remember Robert Fulgham's book, "All I Ever Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten?" The tenets – share everything, play fair, don't hit people, etc. – evoke memories of the kindergartens we parents knew as children, the place where we learned to get along in preparation for "real school."

Oh, how things have changed. These days, kindergarten is "real school." And it's gotten even more real over the last few years.

"When my son was in kindergarten in 2003-04, I expected to see a lot more artwork in his weekly folder. But instead, I received a lot more pencil-and-paper activities," says Sue Ellen Bennett, a former public school kindergarten teacher who lives in Winston-Salem. "As a parent, I think it's appalling that they are asking them to do things that are not developmentally appropriate for that age group. They are doing first-grade work: reading, writing sentences, simple addition and simple subtraction. Teachers even introduce money and time, which are very abstract concepts."

A Little History

Kindergarten literally means "children's garden." During the 1830s, German educator Friedrich Froebel envisioned this garden as a world where children could play with others of their own age group and experience independence.

His vision had staying power. Up until the 1970s, most kindergartens in North Carolina were part of church-based nursery schools, and the children's days were filled with building blocks and crayons. "My memories of kindergarten days are much more play-filled than the more academic versions in most schools today," says Clare Altmann, a Winston-Salem mother.

When did the "kinder-evolution" begin?

"You probably can't pinpoint one particular point in time when kindergartens began changing, and it's important to recognize that not all kindergartens are changing," says Alan Simpson, communications director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). "Generally, though, 20 or 30 years ago, kindergartens were designed to help children make the transition from a home setting to a school setting."

In 1973, the North Carolina General Assembly provided the first state-funded pilot kindergarten programs. The legislation phased in additional programs over the years, and, by 1977-78, kindergarten was available to all eligible children on a statewide basis. That's when kindergarten became a part of school. And the evolution began.

"Once kindergarten became the entry level to schooling, I think it has just naturally evolved into a more academic setting," says Norris Baker, Lower School director of Forsyth Country Day School in Winston-Salem.

Fast Forward to the 21st Century

Over the last few years, academic pressure in kindergarten programs has increased.

"It's changed a lot," says Kim Fansler, a kindergarten teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System. "In the mid-'90s, if the students left kindergarten knowing their letters and knowing their sounds, they were proficient. Now they are expected to read. We taught them to read before, but if they weren't ready to do it, it was OK. Now that's not the case. They have to do it."

Educators attribute recent changes in kindergarten to two things: research and the No Child Left Behind legislation.

"The brain research that has taken place over the last decade or so has really made parents, schools, society and culture acutely aware of the first five years of life and how important brain development is," Baker says.

The windows of opportunity for learning are there in early childhood, so the learning should take place before the windows close. For schools, this means teaching more at an earlier age.

"There is a fairly large body of research indicating that, if students are not reading on grade level by third grade, they will not ever," says Mary Alice Yarbrough, director of elementary instruction for Orange County Schools. "So there's a real push for early intervention. We know that if we intervene early, we have a greater likelihood of making the child successful. The expectations were raised for children as we knew more about research."

Signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind requires states and local school systems to meet tougher academic standards or face sanctions.

"It really raises the stakes," Yarbrough says. "It is saying that all students will be proficient by the year 2013. It means that you really have to hit the ground running. So kindergarten has to be about literacy. It has to be where you are using your counting and sorting."

Today's public school kindergartens have a more "meaningful curriculum," she says. "Although a quick glance at 'A Guide for Parents,' which summarizes expectations from the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, might lead one to conclude that a lot of information is required, if you look carefully, you will see that much or most of the learning occurs in a natural setting and utilizes centers where students have a choice about activities. Students or teachers may read 'Rosie's Walk' and then use that book as a springboard for other activities, such as a walk around campus where they walk 'around,' 'behind,' 'under,' etc. Children are not expected to sit at desks and listen to the teacher talk."

But the way children are instructed depends on the teacher, Fansler says.

"The teacher needs to make sure they are choosing the appropriate way to instruct so children are having fun and enjoying it, so they want to learn to read and they want to learn to write. If it is pushed and pushed – if there are a lot of paper-and-pencil activities – they may not enjoy it, and they may get stressed out and frustrated," she cautions.

Teachers can swing in the other direction, too, she says. "I've worked with probably 25-plus kindergarten teachers. Some are very paper and pencil, and then you get some that are very center-oriented, very play. It's very important to find a balance," she says.

Parents who feel the kindergarten atmosphere is too academic can mediate some of the pressure.

"As a parent, I did not require my child to do all the assignments offered," says Winston-Salem mother Kimberly Gregg, whose son will enter first grade this fall. "It was a challenge for my husband and myself, but we felt growing through playing and some homework would be fine for this year. I sometimes felt we were being slack, but in turn, I did not want to turn him away from the love of learning.

"When they have been in school for almost eight hours, I think it is absurd to think they should complete a project or too much homework on most evenings. Homework cannot be required at this age. The teachers may send it home, but cannot make the child do it."

Bennett agrees. "There is too much pressure at this early age," she says. "They are already taking tests, and that is not age or developmentally appropriate."

How Old for Kindergarten?

Are kindergarten expectations too high for kindergartners? It's hard to tell. Many parents whose children, particularly boys, have fall or summer – or even spring – birthdays delay the start of kindergarten. The children go to a "readiness" or "pre-kindergarten" or "transitional kindergarten" class, even if they are chronologically 5 years old by the somewhat arbitrary Oct. 15 cut-off date for public schools in North Carolina.

Throughout the country, there are many different cut-off dates for entering public school.

"We all know that there's nothing magical about being 5 on Oct. 15," Yarbrough says. "Children mature at different levels, and they mature at different rates."

But the decision to hold back can sometimes take on a life of its own, depending upon what the majority of parents in the community are doing.

"As much as (holding back) is an individual decision to make for each child, we can't help but be influenced by the decisions of others around us, because if more children are postponing their first year of kindergarten, younger children may feel they are at a disadvantage," Altmann says.

Today's kindergarten classrooms have fairly large age spreads.

"Last year in my class, I had about four children that were 6 when they started, and I had about four that were 4," Fansler says. "I had some turning 5 in September, and I had some turning 7 in June. I had a child who sat at his table and looked at what the other kids could do, and that was very frustrating for him. It's kind of like we all need to hold them back or we all need not to."

Judith Kuhn, a kindergarten teacher and assistant director of the Forsyth Country Day School Lower School, is an advocate for delaying entrance into kindergarten if the child is not developmentally ready. "I have never heard a parent say, 'I'm sorry I gave my child the extra time,'" she says.

Children entering Forsyth Country Day have a Gesell Developmental Evaluation, which assesses four areas of behavior: motor, language, adaptive and personal-social.

"Generally speaking, the Gesell test is right on the money in (predicting) how successful a child is in the classroom socially and academically," Kuhn says. "We want a child to be 5 years old developmentally (which is different from chronological age) by Sept. 1 coming into kindergarten."

In more populous, competitive markets, children may take several tests to gain admission to private schools.

"We administer Gesell and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence test that measures performance, verbal and full-scale IQ," says Dr. Susan Beattie, director of admissions for Providence Day School in Charlotte. "In addition, we do small group experiences where children will perform preschool tasks so we can observe interaction, reading, etc.

"Providence Day seeks to identify students within the high-average to the above-average range," she continues. "We collect and review several different pieces of information about children: developmental skill level, cognitive potential, behavioral observations, teacher recommendation and group classroom observation."

Some private schools, Providence Day included, want children to be 5-1/2 developmentally when they start kindergarten.

"I questioned that with the Gesell Institute, and they said it's because the curriculums have changed so much," Kuhn says. "It's more of a first-grade curriculum, and the children do need to be older in kindergarten."

The trend of readiness testing and delaying the start of kindergarten is of concern to NAEYC. In a recent position paper, NAEYC states: "A number of highly questionable practices have resulted from the trend to require more of kindergarten children. These practices include:

  • inappropriate use of screening and readiness tests;
  • discouragement or outright denial of entrance for eligible children;
  • the development of segregated transitional classes for children deemed unready for the next traditional level of school; and
  • increasing use of retention."

"School readiness is a two-way street," NAEYC's Simpson says. "Kindergarten-age children develop at different rates and need a curriculum that is appropriate to their level of development. As we ask whether our children are prepared for kindergarten, we should also make sure our kindergartens and our teachers are prepared for the children. And we should remember that for most families, holding children back isn't really an option because there aren't quality preschool programs available that they can afford as an alternative."

Kuhn disagrees. "They say it really damages the child socially and emotionally if you let the child have that extra time, but I know from my own experience that it does the opposite of that."

Orange County public schools use screening and readiness testing to plan and deliver instruction at an appropriate level, Yarbrough says.

"We do not deny entrance to eligible children," she says. "We do not segregate children into transitional classes. Retention is always a last resort and used sparingly."

She recommends that parents examine their motives carefully when deciding whether to give their child an extra year before entering kindergarten. Ask yourself: Am I doing it because my child will exhibit more leadership skills, or am I doing it because my child will be almost a year older and will therefore be a star athlete?

Preparing Your Child

Parents today can send their children to a type of kindergarten "boot camp." Chesterbrook Academies throughout the country offer Kindergarten Kickoff, an eight-week crash course in kindergarten preparedness. It's designed to help build academic and social skills for children during the summer prior to kindergarten – and quell the anxieties of parents who aren't sure if their child is ready.

"The program targets kids who have been at home or in day cares that have not had a real strong curriculum going into kindergarten," says Chad Scott, regional manager of southern operations for Nobel Learning Communities. "It teaches all of the social skills, all of the intellectual skills – how to sit in circle time, how to interact with your teacher."

The children are tested with a Language Assessment Profile Diagnostic developed by Nobel Learning Communities.

"A week before the program starts, we'll bring your child in and do an assessment and look at where they fall against national norms," Scott explains. "Then after the program, there is a post assessment on the cognitive skills, the intellectual skills and the emotional skills."

With kids prepping for kindergarten in the same way they can prep for the SAT, parents may feel getting ready for kindergarten is too stressful. But it shouldn't be, according to Charlotte mother Donna Gilbert, the director of communications at Providence Day School.

"Preparing a child for kindergarten should not be stressful, but parents should be well-informed about the various programs available," she says. "Go visit. Get a feel for the environment and observe classrooms. The kindergarten teacher should be available to answer all questions and make you feel welcome. A parent knows what feels right for their child."

Preschool is another important part of preparing for kindergarten. "I think preschool is absolutely essential in the development of children," Scott says.

Many parents agree. "I think one or two mornings a week starting at age 2 is great," Bennett says. "The more exposure they have to school at an earlier age, the better prepared they are for kindergarten."

But there is one thing educators say is even more important than preschool.

"The single most important thing a parent can do is read to the child every day," Yarbrough says. "We know from research that one of the major things separating children at risk of failure from those who are successful is vocabulary. Read every day and read what you have available."

"It all goes back to what children are exposed to from 0 to 5," Fansler says. "If they are exposed to very little, then making children proficient is a big job for teachers to do in a year."

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