Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kindergarten Today: High Pressure or Good Preparation?

Kindergarten is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately as my oldest son is approaching that milestone this coming fall. We have already been attending school tours and hearing his preschool teachers mention skills and behavior that will be expected next year. Based on this and hearing from parents whose children are already in kindergarten, it is clear that today’s kindergarten is not the same experience as when I attended years ago. Gone are the days of simply coloring, playing with play dough and taking naps in kindergarten. Today’s kindergartners are expected to master many more academic skills than in years past.

A new study looking at just this issue has found that my impression of the changes in kindergarten is not isolated. Although parents and educators have felt these changes, this is one of the first studies to closely document this shift in education. First, a few notes about the sample in the study:

-  sample included 2,800 public school kindergarten teachers

-  tracked teacher responses from 1998 to 2006 to follow changes in perceptions

-  sample also included responses from 3,500 first-grade teachers in order to assess the degree to which kindergarten expectations in 2006 resemble first-grade expectations in 1999

Overall, the study found what we parents might have expected. Kindergarten today (or in 2006 of the study) looks much like first-grade did less than 10 years prior. The most marked findings included:

-   a 25% increase in the amount of time spent on reading instruction in kindergarten

-   similarly, teachers reported an increase in teaching English/Language Arts topics in kindergarten that were previously considered too advanced for kindergarten

-   overall there was a decline in time spent teaching topics that are not included in standardized assessments, such as social studies, science, math, art, and PE

So it seems clear from this study and our own anecdotal evidence as parents that kindergarten has become more academic on many levels. The question for us, then, is whether this more academic focused kindergarten presents a problem for students’ long-term success?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers in regards to this question. While many researchers and child-development experts point to studies showing the benefits of play-based early education, almost as many tout evidence showing advantages to a more academic approach, especially among low-income children.

In reality, it seems a balanced approach to play and academics is ideal in the kindergarten classroom. In a well-formulated statement put out by The Alliance for Childhood, they authors describe how the balance of guided play and experiential activities with active teachers should be the goal of a kindergarten classroom. What seems to be the danger in the changes we've seen in kindergarten is a slide toward a total teacher-directed, didactic, overly structured classroom that neither benefits students long-term but also puts undue amounts of pressure on young children.   

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