J2 Content – Perspectives

A varied collection of thoughts on education and parenting

Today’s Kindergarten Classroom

Many people are surprised to discover what happens in today’s kindergarten classrooms. With today’s higher standards, the expectations for student learning in kindergarten have greatly increased. In California, the Education Code states that “Districts must admit children at the beginning of the school year … if they will be five years of age on or before December 2 of the school year” (EC Section 48000[a]). This means that depending on when the school year begins (and some begin as early as July or August), some kindergarten students may be four years old for the first six months of the school year! According to the National Association of School Psychologists, while the average child can learn to decode words at about age six, it is normal for children to learn this skill as early as age four and as late as age seven. Although every child is different, I believe that many of these young students are not developmentally ready for the rigorous expectations of today’s kindergarten classroom.

Gone are the days of kindergarten being a vehicle for developing school readiness. Children used to sing songs, listen to stories, and play with blocks and Play-Doh, and build puzzles. They were taught how to sit still and listen to their teacher, to raise their hand to speak, and to walk in a line. They had to learn how to follow rules and the consequences for not following those rules. The emphasis was on learning important social skills like sharing, taking turns, and communicating with others appropriately. A teacher showed children how to play with others (especially if they were an only child who had not gone to preschool). Academically, kindergartners learned about shapes, colors, letters, numbers, counting, and writing their name. Kindergarten was a place where children learned to love books, to interact with peers, and to enjoy school. It was a positive beginning to their school career.

What used to be first grade skills are now expected from our kindergartners. Today’s kindergartners must be able to read by the end of the year. By reading, I mean that they are expected to decode not just consonant-vowel-consonant words like cat and dog, but also more complex words that have long vowels, consonant blends, and even multi-syllable words. Kindergartners must have automaticity with at least thirty sight words. They must be able to decode, read with fluency, and comprehend what they are reading. Some kindergarten classes expect students to be able to write a paragraph by the end of the year, with capitalization, punctuation, appropriate spacing, the majority of the words spelled correctly, and legible handwriting. In math, students are expected to do more than merely recognize numbers and count. They must be able to compare numbers and understand the concepts of relative measure (more, less, and equal), sometimes even using the abstract symbols <, >, and =. Students will be expected to add and subtract. They are usually allowed to use manipulatives in the beginning, but teachers often expect students to be able to solve simple addition and subtraction math problems without the use of manipulatives by the end of the year. They must solve mathematical equations, such as 5 + 3 = ___. There isn’t time for conceptual learning, and there definitely isn’t time for playing and fun (except for a short recess break).

There are various alternatives to the current practices that can be explored. Standards for kindergarten can be lowered, so we can ensure a successful kindergarten year, and introduction to formalized education, for all students. The kindergarten start age can be raised, so more children are developmentally ready to read, write, add, and subtract when they start school. There could be a system in place where children are assessed for school readiness, rather than simply relying on chronological age. A year of preschool could be required (and government-funded) to help children gain those essential pre-K skills. We could look at what has worked in other countries. For example, in Ontario, Canada, there is a two-year kindergarten program. In the first year (Junior Kindergarten, or JK), students are in a play-based educational program that encourages exploration, observations, investigation, and creative thinking. Children learn to get used to sitting still for longer periods of time, listening to teacher’s instructions, and forming social relationships. After the year of JK, students are much more ready for the academics of Senior Kindergarten, or SK. Regardless of the kindergarten program or start age, we should keep in mind that all children are different, and develop at different paces. If they don’t all crawl or walk at the same age, we can’t expect that they will all read at the same age either.

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