What do you do when your son bombs kindergarten? Give him a fresh start

My husband and I recently took our youngest son to check out his new kindergarten. This will be his second go. We pulled Gabe out of a different kindergarten in September after only a couple of weeks. When I tell some parents this, they gush, “Awww, you wanted to give him the gift of another year.” Other parents make an icy comment along the lines of “Well, I guess he’ll have a little competitive edge then.”

The truth: we are neither compassionate gifters nor strategic redshirters (people who hold their kids back for academic or sports advantages). We’re simply average parents trying to make choices that are right for our son. And sometimes we screw up.

It wasn’t like we weren’t warned, though. I even wrote about my K anxiety back in August. Gabe’s preschool teachers told us he wasn’t ready for kindergarten. He’d attended a play-based parent participation preschool where the child is in charge of choosing his or her daily activities. A kid’s paradise, the outdoor play area was a beautiful oasis of sand, climbing hills, bike yard, butterfly garden and an idyllic winding play river.

Our son spent two years playing and splashing in this haven daily from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Fridays, I was there with him. Unlike many other kids, he had little interest in the stations for practicing writing and pre-reading skills. This was okay with the school. Their research-based philosophy is that when children are ready, they will naturally gravitate toward academics. For example, there was no set time when everyone had to learn ABCs or write their name.

We wholly bought into the philosophy. At home, he was surrounded by books, games and people who read and write. His interests, however, went toward Legos, bike riding, skate boarding and YouTube videos of people playing with Legos, bike riding and skate boarding. We read to him, which he tolerated, but given a choice he’d strap on a helmet and hop on something with wheels. We learned we could only push academics so far before he revolted.

‘It was a disaster’

Because Gabe’s a November birthday and would be among the older kids even if he were in kindergarten today, we ignored the preschool teacher’s recommendation. And, based on our experience with our older son, we didn’t think there was any way our child would struggle–in kindergarten for goodness sakes. That’s why we went ahead and enrolled him in a charter school that we believed compatible with our preschool.

From day one, it was a disaster. He went to school fine, but didn’t cooperate with the teacher or other students. The first Friday, I volunteered in the class and could see the issue. His classmates wrote their names and copied words like “Disneyland.” Meanwhile, even his “G” was shaky and cramped. I spoke with some of the other parents and the majority had had their kids in more academic preschools. Many had also done transitional kindergarten. In our class, nobody else had been in a preschool program similar to ours (in the other K class there were kids from our preschool and, as far as I’m aware, they did fine).

On the playground, my son found nothing but trouble. The biggest, tallest kid from another class followed him around and taunted him. When the kid didn’t taunt Gabe, Gabe sought him out and taunted him.

So during his brief tenure in K #1, Gabe was quickly becoming the class “problem.” The second Friday I volunteered, he was so uncooperative I texted, “We gotta get him out of here!!” to my husband, who met us at the school.

At wit’s end, we enrolled him in a private transitional kindergarten down the street from our house. He’s by far the oldest kid in the class and it’s a strain for us to afford the tuition. Almost instantly, though, his demeanor changed. He became relaxed and cooperative.

There are plenty of people who say kindergarten has simply become too hard and the curriculum has been pushed down so that kindergarten students are now doing what first graders used to do. This is true. It’s the reason more kindergarteners are being retained, the reason school districts have changed the cut off dates for enrollment and offer transitional kindergarten for the youngest K-eligible students. But I also can’t deny that the vast majority of kids, unlike Gabe, seem to survive.

The other day I asked G what he might say if a parent or classmate asked why he would be turning seven in kindergarten. “I’m going to tell them that my parents decided to start me in school late.”

Smart kid, he sees this for what it is: his parents’ issue. Maybe we screwed up by buying into a preschool philosophy that disadvantaged our son when we tried to enter him in kindergarten. And maybe we further screwed up by not believing the teachers when they said he simply wasn’t ready. All I know is that despite a parent’s best intentions, a child’s education isn’t always going to go the way you want it to.

We received a report card from Gabe’s new teacher the other day. Among the comments: “He is a talented and wonderful boy, and hard working child” and “…his friendly and cooperative attitude will always be a pleasant addition to any class.” He still needs to work on recognizing sight words and she marked him as “emerging” instead of “mastered” when it comes to showing interest in reading.

It got me thinking, though. Maybe we believe we screwed up, but in the end we’re going to realize we simply gave him the gift of another year. A little revisionist, I know. Still, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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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 MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. 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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