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Adventures in Kindergarten

Four families share their very different starting-school experiences.

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As parents, we want our child's transition to kindergarten to be a smooth one. But lo and behold, life intervenes. We spoke to four families about what it was like to send their little ones off to the big school. They told us about the triumphs and the pitfalls they encountered through the year. In the end, everyone gets through kindergarten — but there are all kinds of ways to do it!

 

Too Much, Too Soon
Changing Course
A Challenge at Home
An End-of-Year Shock

Too Much, Too Soon
In Florida, the cutoff date for kindergarten is May 1. Mikey Perez of Orlando turned 5 on April 29 and knew his shapes, colors, letters, and name. But his mother, Kelly, felt her son was not mature enough for school. “He was still having potty-training issues,” recalls Kelly, who has three other children and is a stay-at-home mom. “He refused to poop on the potty at preschool. He acted young for his age — more like a 4 year old.” Still, the state’s rule was that if you’re 5, you go.

The kindergarten day ran from 8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. There wasn’t much time for play: just a mid-day lunch period followed by a 12-minute recess. By the end of kindergarten, students were supposed to be able to identify all the letters in the alphabet, along with their sounds (short and long); recognize consonants; and count to 180 by ones, 2s, 5s, and 10s.

Mikey had a hard time with reading and with staying on task. He often went into play mode, pretending he was on the phone or telling jokes to the teacher. He had a lot of homework, which took an hour and a half for him to complete. He rebelled, shouting, “I’m not going to do it!”

Kelly coped by having him do one or two things on his homework, and letting it go at that. “I didn’t want him to hate school,” she says. “He was already saying, ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t want to read my book.’ I really felt for him. They do timed tests in kindergarten to get the kids into testing mode for the FCATs, a standardized test that 4th, 8th and 10th graders take. Mikey didn’t do very well on those,” says Kelly. “He can count to 150, but when he was tested he only counted to 14.”

By spring Mikey was more independent, though still very attached to his mom. The teachers said they wanted to retain him. His parents agreed; they think it’s a good idea, so Mikey can master basic skills. “If he doesn’t have those when he gets to 1st grade, and has to learn new ones besides, he’ll really stress out,” says Kelly. “My older son went to half-day kindergarten in Pennsylvania. He learned shapes, cut things out with scissors, and had lots of playtime. Things have really changed!”

Facing a similar situation? Trust your instincts. If your child is having trouble with schoolwork, boost his confidence in other ways. Tell him what a fine friend he is, or what a good artist or T-ball player she is. Compliment his cooperation with other family members. As grandma might say, “Make a fuss of him!”

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Changing Course
Paul and Micheline Lewis, in Bethlehem Township, New Jersey, thought they had their oldest son’s educational path thoroughly mapped out. They’d chosen a private school that ran all the way through high school, and Matthew was already enrolled in preschool there — in a room with just two other boys in a class of 18. His teacher told his parents to encourage Matthew to read, when they knew their son was curled up in bed each night reading Curious George.

“Even though the preschool experience was discouraging, my wife and I were still convinced we wanted Matthew at this private school,” says Paul. “We weren’t sure what was wrong, but we felt we’d made the right decision initially, and wanted to stay with it. But our happy-go-lucky kid spent the year kicking, screaming, and saying how much he hated school. Something had to give. So the spring before kindergarten started, we decided to do a comparison with the public school. No one was more surprised than we were when public school came out ahead!”

Now enrolled in public kindergarten, Matthew is a whole new kid. He’s happy, excited, and loves school. The class ratio of boys to girls is better balanced. He goes to kindergarten from 8:45 a.m. until 1 p.m., and two days a week he attends an enrichment program in the afternoon, where he reads with a group of 1st and 2nd graders. He’s the only kindergartner in the program and is reading at a 4th-grade level.

“The public school seems to have a knack for keeping kids challenged as they develop at different rates,” says Paul. “That’s what was missing at his old school. We’ve changed our minds about private school for our three younger daughters as well. Our daughter Madeleine starts kindergarten this fall, in the same school as her big brother.”

Facing a similar situation? Be flexible. Be ready to change plans. Be familiar with other school options. The school you envisioned for your child may not be the right setting for him.

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A Challenge at Home
In Oak Hill, Virginia, Casey Rick couldn’t wait to be a kindergartner. She wanted to ride the bus like her older brother, a high school junior. Her classroom was filled with books, and Casey spent a lot of time in the cozy reading area; she already knew how to read. She made friends easily, and soon had 28 new friends. Her best friend, Hailey, was in 1st grade, and they rode the bus together.

Casey’s parents separated early in the school year. When she asked her mom where Daddy was, her mom, Phyllis, gently told her about the divorce. On the advice of a friend, she’d bought a copy of Dinosaurs Divorce, and they read it together. Casey was very upset. When she headed off to school that day, her mom wrote a note to the teacher, Miss Homer, explaining what was going on. Miss Homer sent Casey to talk to the school counselor. She also told Casey that her own parents had divorced when she was 7, so she knew exactly how Casey felt. She said she would always be there whenever Casey needed to talk.

That day after school, Casey came home and said, "Mom, I met the counselor. She was so pretty, and she said that you still loved me, daddy still loved me, and then we read that dinosaur book, and I said 'My mom read me this already!'"

Casey asked to see the counselor a few more times; there’s a sign-up sheet on her teacher’s desk for anyone who wants an appointment. Sometimes Casey and the counselor ate lunch together.

Casey came home in June with a great report card, and she’s now doing fine in 1st grade. She sees her dad most weekends. “She came through it with flying colors,” says Phyllis, noting the supportive, sympathetic group of people surrounding Casey at school.

Facing a similar situation? Level with your child and the school about family changes. Share information appropriate to her age, maturity level, and ability to understand. Be sensitive to the language you use around her. Surround her with caring, supportive adults.

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An End-of-Year Shock
Jacqueline Smith, of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, fooled everyone. She was sociable, kind, and cute. She loved to play with her friends, especially her girl cousins. Her older brother, a 4th grader, had a smooth kindergarten year, and her parents had no reason to expect otherwise from their daughter. But she just wasn’t ready.

Jacqueline turned 5 at the end of August, and started half-day kindergarten the following week at the same school her dad attended as a boy. Confronted with a sea of new faces, Jacqueline became a first-class clinger at drop-off time. “She was my tree hugger,” says her mom, Kathy. “It would take an aide and a teacher to tear her off me. She’d be screaming and crying, and I’d leave in tears. This lasted until after the February break. It was horrible.”

“Looking back, I realize I had her in a bit of a bubble,” says Kathy. “My husband and I grew up here, and we have lots of friends and family around. Jacqueline never did anything on her own. She loved playing with her cousins, but they go to a different school. In kindergarten, she became best friends with Jane, who was almost a year older. Jane did all the talking, and Jacqueline didn’t say a word.”

At quarterly conferences, the teacher (who was brand-new to the school and the profession) said Jacqueline was doing great. “Just read with her a bit more. She’s so cute!” was the usual feedback.

The end-of-year report card told a different story. Results from a national test showed Jacqueline in the 22nd percentile compared to other kindergartners. “I almost fainted,” recalls Kathy. “I ran into the teacher, and she was surprised, too. ‘Maybe she copied off Jane all year,’ was all she could say. ‘I wouldn’t worry. Anyway, she can’t repeat kindergarten again. She would be bored stiff. She’s ready for 1st grade.’”

Kathy took the teacher’s words to heart. “I thought, it’s just playtime, recess, and learn your letters. I talked to the 1st grade teacher I’d requested for Jacqueline. She downplayed the test results, too. ‘She’s fine,’ she said. I went home and did the mom thing: I called all my friends and asked what their kids’ scores were on the test; no one knew. So we sent her on to 1st grade. And what happened? She’s struggling.”

Kathy and her husband began the process of testing Jacqueline for learning disabilities but pulled back. The consensus: Jacqueline is just young; most kids in her grade are almost a year older. “The teacher didn’t want her to be classified for the next five years if this is just an age thing,” says Kathy. “Slowly, we’re starting to see some progress. But it’s scary to see your child’s self esteem knocked down. Sometimes she says she feels like a dummy and asks why she’s not smart. She had her first tantrum ever because she can’t get all her homework done. She’s exhausted.”

This fall, Jacqueline will repeat 1st grade, and her mom thinks her daughter is ready this time. ”If I had to do it over again, I would have gone with my gut and put my foot down when kindergarten first started. She wasn’t ready. She was my second child, so you’d think I would have seen the signs to keep her back. But it went right over my head.”

Facing a similar situation? Schedule more parent-teacher conferences, as well as meetings with the principal, when your child has a first-time teacher. Volunteer in class to see the teacher in action and your child with her peers. And of course, as Kathy advises, trust your gut.

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