My son and I are both grappling with kindergarten anxiety

My son and I recently attended a park play date for incoming kindergarteners. He didn’t want to be there. He wanted to stay at preschool summer camp, play forever and not waste time meeting the scary new teachers and new friends.

Of course, our jobs as parents is to encourage and be positive, which I did. But over the course of the last several months, I’ve chatted with many parents who have kids entering kindergarten. Some are excited. They believe their kids are clearly ready to start formal education. And then there are those, like me, who are a little more anxious.

When I think back to kindergarten, I mostly recall storytime, show-and-tell, playing in the pretend kitchen and grocery store, constructing massive structures of blocks, and never sleeping during our so-called naps. That’s because that’s essentially what kindergarten used to be.

But now kindergartens are very often intentionally academic-based environments because the focus is on getting 5-year-olds to start to read, write and do math. This move has worried researchers like Joan Almon, cofounder of the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood, which promotes policies and practices that support healthy development in childhood, says is patently wrong.

Almon’s 2013 report It’s Playtime: the value of play in early childhood, and how to get educators on board details much research that concludes kids who engage in child-led, play-based early education are more successful later.  Almon says that a contributing factor that has moved early education in the U.S. away from child-led, play-based models and toward the academic models is the belief that children should learn to read at age 5. This, despite there being no evidence that early readers are better readers later on.

In fact, in some countries where kids tend to perform very well in reading —think Norway, Sweden and Finland— kids don’t even start school until age 6 or 7.

As a writer, I love reading and I certainly value the written word. But my son’s preschool has been the child-led, play-based model all the way. He likes stories and is starting to show increasing interest in letters and sounds, yet he’s nowhere near reading even simple words or writing even his name well. He’ll attend a public charter school kindergarten that’s compatible with his preschool experience in that it promises to provide opportunities for child-led free play and fun class projects that look like total play, but are truly academic (it’s a public school, after all, which means that here in California we’re following Common Core State Standards).

Still, I can’t completely shake my apprehension.

I tell myself to trust the research. The HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study, for example. The study followed 68 at-risk kids from about age 3 to age 23.  The results are pretty astounding. Kids from the play-based early education models showed a host of important benefits. By age 15, the play-based kids had half as much delinquent activity as the academic-based kids. By age 23, they had significantly fewer felony arrests and special education needs.

But, then again, there’s the other research —notably about the increasing use of kindergarten retention. That’s right, kids can now flunk kindergarten. In fact, kindergarten retention has caused many states to up the cutoff date at which kids can be admitted to kindergarten. In California our cutoff date has changed to September 1 from December 1.  Many states now have as early as August 1 as the cutoff.

The move is meant to try to ensure kids are more developmentally ready to enter an academic learning environment, because the youngest kindergarteners might not be ready for  what used to be the curriculum of first graders. And yet this study found that kindergarten retention is ultimately harmful.

I feel caught between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, I understand the proven importance of play-based models and that’s the strategy I’ve chosen for my son. On the other hand, I’m going to bet that many of my son’s new classmates will be from academic-based preschools because they seem to be more common these days. Many may be leaps and bounds ahead of him at the start of school.

This makes me anxious that he’ll be at risk for retention. My son has had a rich, supportive early education and home environment. He doesn’t appear to have any developmental delays, and he’s well past the date for the kindergarten cutoff. In effect, he’s an average boy. It’s ludicrous and maddening that I should have any concerns. Kindergarten should be able to embrace average kids–the ones who weren’t tutored or drilled to read and write before their formal education even began.

My personal good news, though, is that my son has started asking me which letter Nerf and other things he’s interested in begin with. It’s a start.

So for now, I’m giving myself the same advice I gave him: Calm down, take it slow and see how things unfold.

What do you think?
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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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