Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The New Era of Kindergarten

United States of America: we have a problem. Remember back some decades ago when you were in kindergarten. Do it. Reminisce. What are you thinking about? Pretend play? Half days either preceded by or followed by a lot of outside time at home? Frequent art and music?

No more. (Check out this article, which shows how, since 1998, kindergarten has morphed into the new first grade.)

At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal. "Okay, our five year olds are learning to read. Isn't that a good thing?" After all, it must be, since Common Core says they should.

Not necessarily. According to a study released by Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, some kids might be ready to learn how to read, while it might be doing more harm than good to others. In fact, there is no research proving learning to read in kindergarten has long term benefits. See this study for more details.

But a lot of kids are successful in kindergarten. They learn to read. Awesome. How? Too often, it's through lessons that require sustained focus. Five year olds are required to sit and focus on a task, such as direct instruction from the teacher or on worksheets, and ignore distractions. If they are kids who struggle, ones who aren't successful, ones who get distracted easily, are constantly moving, and have a hard time planning and organizing, they are frequently seen as a behavior issue and just might get screened for ADHD.

This behavior is normal. 

The part of our brain that helps us focus and not be so impulsive is called the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. In three year olds this part of the brain is hardly developed at all. That would explain why my daughter ended up making her own "shopping list" with the crayons I had instructed her to pick up a minute earlier. Working towards a goal, getting organized, and showing self control is all a part of something called executive function. Between three and six, the prefrontal cortex is developing quickly, but in years four and five it is still well behind age six. The graph below shows this pretty well. You can read this study for more info.

This means that five year olds are not developmentally ready for the demands the new era of kindergarten places on them, expectations that were left left to six and seven year olds in past years. Their brains physically aren't developed to the point where they're ready for that level of executive functioning.

To top it all off, while the intensity of instruction has gone up, the amount of free time and recess has gone down. The effects of this are big and include poor social skills, increased obesity, and behavior problems.

Don't get my message wrong: there are many, many fantastic kindergarten teachers out there. As I typically put it, we do the best we can in the system we're in. Even the best teachers have common core standards they have to address and ingrained beliefs about reaching goals that have to be overcome.

So these are the problems. What can be done to fix this? In part two of this post, I'll stop complaining and give my ideas.