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.

  2 comments for “My son and I are both grappling with kindergarten anxiety

  1. Avatar
    Steve Bell
    August 7, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Victoria, I read your commentary with interest and identified with the concern you expressed about what your son’s experience would be like in Kindergarten. There’s probably not a parent who hasn’t or won’t share similar concerns. Everyone wants their child to enjoy school, to be nurtured and safe there, so how can you know that you have the right school and teacher for your son?

    Having been a teacher and a principal, I’ve thought about this a lot, because I wanted parents and students to be happy in school, and know that happiness in school comes from being successful socially, emotionally and academically. I wanted parents and students to believe that their school was a wonderful school, and to say so when they talked to others about school. I believe that is what you want for your son and for yourself, so how can you know that will be true in advance of enrolling your son and his first day there?

    You might talk to other parents, parents of children who will be entering First Grade this year. What was their experience? You might talk with the principal and the teachers, or rather listen very carefully to what they say about their school, what their goals are, and what they think of their students and their students parents. In what they say, can you determine who they perceive to be the most important person in the school? What is uppermost in their minds — the curriculum, the rules, their program, student behavior, their school’s test scores?

    It’s my belief that the student is the most important person in the school, that everything that happens in the school ought to be evaluated by the effect that it has on the student. After all, the school and all its staff exist because of and for the student. As we listen to what teachers and principals say about the work that they do, if this central importance of the student, how the student feels in school, how the student succeeds in school, how the student is accepted and appreciated in school comes through loud and clear, you probably need not worry. In such an environment, your son’s success and happiness will be the means by which the teacher evaluates his/her success.

    The only other thing you should know is how the teacher and the principal make that focus real — what they do to be sure that what they’re saying they want to happen actually does happen. You might get some information on that from parents and students who have some experience in that school. If you’re not hearing things from them that give you complete confidence, you’ll need to be very watchful or to consider another option.

    Learning and learning to work with others should be a mostly joyful experience for your son. Certainly there will be some challenges along the way, but that’s where teacher and parent understanding, support and encouragement make moving forward possible for students. We want them to know that they can move forward, and that we will help them, not belittle them.

    Trust yourself to make the right decision.

  2. Avatar
    Victoria C
    August 10, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    What a thoughtful and wise comment. Thank you. We need more educators like you!

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