Recapturing Kindergarten for 5-Year-Olds

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Changes in kindergarten over the last 20 years have been so far-reaching that one can hardly find vestiges of the original purposes for its development in many schools, whether public or private. And in many instances, kindergarten has become a harmful experience for the children for whom it was originally conceived.

When kindergarten was for 5-year-olds, no one worried whether children could sit still for long periods of time--the classroom was organized so that children could move around and select useful pursuits from a wide variety of materials and activities. No one worried whether children had long attention spans--they weren't expected to be able to sit and listen to lessons for the majority of the school day. Teacher-directed activities were then largely limited to music and storytelling. Twenty years ago, no one worried, either, whether children could count to 20, say their ABC's, or knew their sounds. It was expected that the school would teach those things in good time. And no one worried about eye-hand coordination or auditory and visual memory. The materials and equipment were designed to help these capacities emerge.

We still have a year of school called kindergarten, but in most cases it bears little resemblance to the kindergarten of two decades ago. Its curricular expectations are at least one year more difficult. Its learning goals are quite formal--specific skills are to be learned--and there are great pressures on children to "achieve'' and on teachers to cause "achievement'' to take place.

There are both real and perceived pressures on parents to have their children "ready'' to go to kindergarten and to keep them away if this intangible stage of readiness has not been attained. For many parents, making the decision about whether to have a 5-year-old begin school or to delay entrance for a year becomes at least as serious a concern as a major family relocation. So many children are staying away for a year that many kindergartens are now full of 6-year-olds. One result of this is that the curricular expectations keep accelerating and fewer and fewer 5-year-olds are welcome.

This trend is gaining momentum at a time when research on the benefits of high-quality early-childhood programs for disadvantaged 4-year-olds has captured the attention of policymakers around the country. And since many states are now initiating programs to give disadvantaged children access to early education, it is especially important that issues related to inappropriate kindergarten and primary-school practices be examined. If there is an inadequate match between what is proposed as high-quality programming for 4-year-olds and what is now common in many kindergartens, a great many children participating in these prekindergarten programs will continue to be viewed as unprepared when they come to kindergarten.

Several factors are interacting to cause changes in the nature of kindergarten programs, and the causes have become so intertwined with the effects that it is difficult to ascribe blame or to propose effective remedies.

A popular belief has developed that many young children are more advanced now because of exposure to television and because so many have been in group settings such as nursery schools and child-care centers. But although some children certainly sound smarter because of exposure to the larger world, it is a misapprehension to think they can learn in more formal ways. This misapprehension persists even in the face of a large and respected body of literature about child development that confirms that children today grow and develop in patterns and at rates remarkably similar to those of children earlier in this century. There is also a mistaken notion that accelerated early formal schooling will raise achievement in later levels; the evidence indicates otherwise.

Overzealous parents are also contributing to curricular acceleration by insisting that their children be "taught'' more and by expecting that knowing how to read will be an outcome of kindergarten. And in reaction to the tougher curricula, many (mostly middle-class) parents are keeping eligible 5-year-olds away from school--an indication that not all parents want this pressured environment for their children.

In addition, a number of schools now participate in the "graying'' of the kindergarten by conducting prekindergarten testing. The content and stated purposes of the tests and the procedures used vary from school to school, but the effects of their use are similar: Tests of any kind connected with kindergarten entrance often serve to establish and perpetuate extralegal entrance requirements. And since normally developing children do develop at varying rates, many children cannot measure up to the increasing cognitive demands of kindergarten programs reflected in the tests.

It does not matter to parents what rationale schools use to explain the purposes for prekindergarten tests; for example, to identify children who may be eligible for special education or to gain planning information for the fall. Parents often begin to believe that their children are somehow wanting, when, in fact, they are well within normal ranges of development. The seeds of fear of future failure are planted early: "My child does not measure up.'' Accordingly, parents often try to get their children ready to meet the expectations by enrolling them in preschools that advertise readiness programs or by buying and using commercial materials designed to teach children what they need to know to "pass'' the tests or to be "ready'' for school.

That some children are viewed as ready for the more demanding academic curriculum is insufficient rationale for the type of program that has evolved. Those advocating developmentally appropriate kindergartens are not suggesting settings that do not challenge the precocious. In fact, a learning environment organized around concrete, open-ended materials has a far better chance of stimulating the "ready'' than does the paper wasteland of many kindergartens.

Although paper-and-pencil curricula have been a boon to entrepreneurs, they are not very healthy for children. Such programs and materials are usually quite narrow and focus on showy, discrete skills, not on nurturing capacities for more broadly based intellectual functioning.

One response of schools to the mismatch of 5-year-olds to the current curricular expectations of the kindergarten has been to establish in-between grades for the young and unready. Popular euphemisms for these programs are developmental kindergartens, readiness kindergartens, or "young fives'' classes. Other schools have established a transition grade between kindergarten and 1st grade for those deemed to be unready for the often also inappropriate demands of 1st grade. Many schools are also using retention, sometimes called "academic redshirting,'' in kindergarten with increasing frequency, under the mistaken notion that retention in kindergarten is less harmful than in later grades. While these approaches are usually well intended, they result in a de facto form of ability grouping or tracking, which establishes a pattern of lowered expectations. Such expectations have serious consequences for future educational experiences for these children.

There are serious equity implications associated with these practices that are receiving very little attention. The "unready'' children placed in these transition classes are often those who have not attended preschool, whose birthdays occur in the quarter just prior to the entrance date for kindergarten, who come to kindergarten even though prekindergarten testing ostensibly showed they were not ready, or who are boys. Further, this holding out and holding over continues with greater frequency in spite of a substantial body of evidence demonstrating its ineffectiveness and, in fact, its negative psychological, social, and academic consequences.

In communities that have established transition grades, an interesting phenomenon can be observed: The instruction in the regular kindergarten continues to focus on the more advanced children. And as this tends to be predominantly an older and older group, more and more younger children are labeled as candidates for the pre-readiness classes.

Kindergarten teachers perceive groups of children having wide variances of age and experience as impossible to manage--and so they are, if the curriculum is defined as a narrow set of discrete skills that each child must master before proceeding to the next level. Increasingly, these grade-level objectives are being established in response to the current national criticism of schools; in the early years of schooling, such a practice is grossly misguided.

Rich, creative experiences with real materials--blocks, clay, paint, and dramatic-play props--that formerly provided the core of kindergarten, and do provide an environment sensitive to the learning needs of children having a broad range of ages and abilities, have now largely been replaced with worksheets, workbooks, and other didactic tasks. Today, children spend too much time in many kindergartens practicing over and over a narrow spectrum of discrete skills that are seldom tied to anything young children care about, are interested in, or, for that matter, need. In addition to being inappropriate, much of what kindergarten children are given to do is just plain boring. It dampens the enthusiasm for learning that nearly all children bring with them and causes many children to feel they are failures.

Although some children appear to do well in a worksheet-dominated curriculum, they do so because at this age they are anxious to please adults. Unfortunately, their compliance reinforces the model in the eyes of teachers, administrators, and parents. Children at this stage of development are also quite adept at memorizing. That they can give back information is taken to mean that earlier "academics'' are beneficial. Furthermore, the tests usually tap only the bits of information learned by rote, rather than children's ability to make use of it.

Educational publishers have responded to the upward shift in curricular expectations for kindergarten by producing a plethora of tests and printed curriculum materials and kits. They have made such materials so available and so seductive that their use is now a substantial part of the problem--another instance of interwoven cause and effect. These materials continue to be used even though there is evidence that many normally developing 5-year-olds cannot understand or use such information and, further, that early failure to do so greatly inhibits their ability to learn it in a timely way.

"Readiness'' tests, most of which cannot meet accepted standards of reliability and validity, are now also aggressively marketed, and prospective purchasers are lured by assurances that finding the unready and counseling them will save them from future failure. (Such children have, of course, already failed by not measuring up to what they are supposed to be able to do in kindergarten before they even get a chance to try to do it.) There are even growing numbers of private educational consultants who offer themselves or their products to assist in this labeling process.

Although earlier portions of this essay harken to times past, I do not advocate going backward. We know more now about young children, how they learn, and how we can best help them do so. Unfortunately, that information is not being used in many places.

In Nebraska, we have made a beginning. The state board of education has adopted a policy that clearly states the difference between appropriate and counterproductive practices. This has empowered many teachers and administrators whose discomfort with what has been happening ran from uneasiness to despair. Informal support groups are being formed among kindergarten and preschool teachers. More schools are limiting the use of worksheets and investing in materials with which children can experiment and manipulate. There is a growing understanding that a print-rich environment full of functional uses for written and oral language provides a far more powerful laboratory for learning to read and write than one in which the learning of relatively few, isolated, and discrete skills becomes the expectation for everyone. There is a growing realization that children learn more and that children of varying abilities can be better served in an experiential program where they are helped to develop intentionality, imagination, and reasoning ability.

Ironically, we would not have to give so much attention to reteaching skills in later school years if our classrooms for young children were allowed to be as rich and varied in opportunity as we know how to make them. It is to this end that we must recapture the kindergarten for the 5-year-old.

Vol. 6, Issue 34, Page 28

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