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Adventures in Kindergarten

Four families share their very different starting-school experiences.


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!'"