Teacher says they see kindergartners struggling with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read.

Opinion: Have we turned kindergarten into a spirit-sapping slog?

Are we ruining kindergarten?

Kindergarten teachers in the Boston suburb of Brookline gained national attention and applause earlier this year for their protest of the increasing academic demands being put on younger and younger children.

Creative play, said the teachers, was losing ground to a developmentally inappropriate focus on earlier reading.

In a 2018 survey of 189 Massachusetts kindergarten teachers, most reported decreases in time allowed for child-directed activities. Instead, kindergartners, especially those in high poverty schools, were working more on scripted lessons.

In a letter delivered to the school board, 27 Brookline teachers said:

We have dedicated our careers to teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and we see that some current practices are leaving an everlasting negative impact on our students’ social-emotional well-being. Therefore, we are here tonight to share with you our concerns about a new kind of gap that is emerging in Brookline kindergarten. It is a “reality gap” — a gap between the way research shows that young children learn best and the curriculum the district requires us to teach. It is a reality gap between Brookline educational values and what is actually happening to children in our classrooms.

The district has made significant changes to expectations around literacy. We have all worked with our literacy coaches and specialists to implement the various reading and writing lessons with fidelity. However, block scheduling — 90-minute reading and writing blocks — comes at the expense of thematic units, play-based learning and social-emotional opportunities.

We are seeing the effects of this loss. We see many of our kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read. A significant body of research exists showing the negative consequences to children’s emotional well-being when they are forced to read before their developing brains can make sense of it. Reading sooner does not always mean better. The push to get our kindergartners to read earlier without consideration of their readiness is impacting their attitudes toward learning.

It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, “I don’t know how to read.” “I hate reading.” “I hate school.” “I am not good at anything.” This our greatest concern.

In our students’ social and emotional development, here’s what we see in our classrooms:

Current academic pressures on 5- and 6-year-olds are contributing to increasing challenges with our kindergartners’ ability to self-regulate, to be independent and creative.

Study after study has shown that young children need time to play, but in Brookline, because of academic demands, time for play-based learning has been shortened and, on some days, eliminated entirely. As kindergarten teachers, we know that play is not frivolous. It enhances brain structure and function, and promotes executive function, which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. It helps children learn to persevere, increase attention and navigate emotions.

Young children are also meant to move around and explore. Many children who sit for long periods of time experience frustration, muscle cramps and disruptive behaviors. We have seen an increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD and behavior issues within our schools, and we know why this is happening. Yet we are doing things that will only exacerbate the problem, rather than make it better.

Their advocacy drew a lot of support, including from Boston College professor Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn” and the college textbook “Psychology.”

Writing in Psychology Today this month, Gray praised the teachers for protesting “the excessive testing, dreary drill, and lack of opportunity for playful, creative, joyful activities... The abuse is occurring not because kindergarten teachers are mean. Most of them are kindhearted people who love children; that’s why they chose the career that they did (though this may change over time as the loving ones quit). The abuse is occurring because the teachers are not being allowed to do what they believe and know is right. They are being required to follow policies imposed from above by people who know little about children and don’t have to see the angeranxiety, and tears that the teachers see in the classrooms.”

Gray shares this comment from a kindergarten teacher:

Words that have come out of my mouth this fall: ‘We do NOT play in kindergarten. Do not do that again!’ (to a student building a very cool 3D scorpion with the math blocks instead of completing his assigned task to practice addition.) ‘No, I cannot read Pete the Cat to you. We have to do our reading’ (90 minutes of a scripted daily lesson). ‘Those clips (hanging from the ceiling) are for when we do art. No, we cannot do any art. We have to do our reading lesson’ (my kinders get to go to a 40-minute art class once a month). ‘No, you cannot look at the books/play with the toys’ (literacy toys and games). ‘No, we cannot do a science experiment. We have to do our reading.’ ‘No, we cannot color. We have to do our reading." … I hate my job. Love my kids—hate the curriculum. But I cannot afford to quit. Too close to retirement to start over.

Yet, alongside this angst about turning kindergarten into a spirit-sapping slog are dismal assessments of the school readiness of America’s children.

The concern that too many kids lack the basic academic skills necessary to succeed in school explains why kindergarten has become more like first grade.

A report this year from the Center on Children and Families at Brookings warned: 

Poor children in the United States start school at a disadvantage in terms of their early skills, behaviors, and health. Fewer than half (48 percent) of poor children are ready for school at age five, compared to 75 percent of children from families with moderate and high income, a 27 percentage point gap.

School readiness has effects beyond the first few months of kindergarten; children with higher levels of school readiness at age five are generally more successful in grade school, are less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background (Duncan et al., 2007, Duncan et al., 2010). 

Entering school ready to learn can improve one’s chances of reaching middle class status by age 40 by about 8 percentage points, according to a recent analysis that uses linked data sets to track success from birth to age 40 (Winship, Sawhill and Gold, 2011).

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.