What do you do with a 5-year-old, sobbing mess? I can distinctly remember dropping my daughter, Sara, off for her first day of kindergarten several years ago. Up until then, Sara was what my wife and I called, a “preschool journeyman.” She had attended at least three different preschools between the ages of 3 and 5. However, these were all half-day programs, and this was our first foray into a full-day program. As a former kindergarten teacher, I was well aware of the ongoing debate between proponents of full-day kindergarten and those who opposed it. Up until the day my daughter started kindergarten, I thought I knew my position on the topic. Was I mistaken.
While teaching kindergarten in a relatively affluent community in Massachusetts early in my teaching career, I had experienced first-hand the difficulty of covering a comprehensive, integrated, standards-driven kindergarten curriculum in a program that ran from 9:05 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and included a snack and recess time. Needless to say, it was extremely difficult and exhausting both for me as a classroom teacher and my students. Interestingly, after observing how mentally and physically drained my little ones were by 12:15 p.m., having completed math, language arts, social studies, science, art, music, and physical education activities in the span of what amounted to two-and-a-half hours a day, I became a strong believer in the “less is more” philosophy. I advocated for a program that allowed children to go home for lunch and be with their families.
I was also convinced, like many opponents of full-day kindergarten, that a longer day would provide no more time for teachers to cover the important foundational academic skills introduced in kindergarten, but rather would be used for additional “child-care” activities such as snack time, play time, and naps—all things that could be accomplished at home by families. Additionally, I feared that moving to a full-day program would embolden policy-makers to further increase the academic demands of kindergarten children and force me to teach skills my students were not developmentally ready to learn. Lastly, I knew that there was very little research at the time to support a full-day model. So, taking a position at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I., and enrolling my daughter in a full-day kindergarten program a few years later was disconcerting for me as both an educator and a father.
From Bellyaches to New Friendships
It was difficult in the beginning. Teaching in the same school where your kindergarten daughter is enrolled is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I was extremely fortunate to get to witness her first authentic school experience in real time. On the other, I also watched as she would slowly fade into an exhausted puddle by lunch time. It only reaffirmed my stance on full-day kindergarten.
However, both Sara and I persevered, by necessity if not design, and by December, I was gradually becoming a convert. My daughter’s stamina increased dramatically as tears and bellyaches were replaced with smiles and new friendships. I discovered that the kindergarten curriculum did not cover any more material in a full day, it simply relaxed the pace and afforded both teacher and student to explore foundational literacy and mathematics skills in a deeper, more multi-sensory way. My daughter had the gift of time to explore letters and numbers, to play with them, manipulate them. She viewed herself proudly as a writer and a reader long before she could actually read or write. She was an artist, a gymnast, a scientist, a musician. Given the benefit of a full day, my daughter was blossoming, not withering from exhaustion as I had feared.
Furthermore, given the additional time, teachers had more opportunities to observe and work with Sara. They were able to identify potential “learning issues” early and develop intervention strategies that helped her overcome these obstacles to her continued learning. Most importantly, Sara was happy and confident. She was developing a love for learning and growing into a capable young student. As the year came to a close and I watched her make the move to 1st grade, I had become completely convinced that, if done correctly, full-day kindergarten had benefits that dramatically outweighed the few negative aspects such a program, if done incorrectly, could pose for children. And upon looking at more current research from the National Center for Education Statistics, I found that children in full-day kindergarten classes make greater academic gains in reading and math than those in half-day classes, even after adjusting for demographic and class-size differences.
Obviously, as the Head of Lower School at Rocky Hill and the father of Sara, now a very successful Rocky Hill 3rd grader, and Alexa, a rather gregarious and outspoken Rocky Hill preschooler, I have my biases. However, it was not until watching Sara blossom and grow into a confident and capable student with all of the foundational skills necessary for a life of learning that I became convinced that appropriately designed and taught full-day kindergarten programs are extremely beneficial to all students. And now, I’m looking forward to experiencing full-day kindergarten with Alexa—however, if early preschool returns from her teachers are any indication, I don’t think I’ll have another sobbing mess!