The parent's story: "C'mon, Sammy, play school with me," Sarah pleaded. Sam's only response was to shake her head. On all fours, guiding her favorite dump truck toward the backyard, she didn't even look up when Sarah added, "We can play 'recess time' if you want."
It didn't really surprise me that Sam turned down her twin sister. Our two 5-year-olds have very different feelings about school. Sarah has adored it from the first day of preschool to this year in kindergarten. Sam tolerated Pre-K, mostly because her sister was right there. But now she's in a different classroom, and she's clearly unhappy. She resists going to school each morning and often says, "I don't like school anymore."
I didn't know what to say last spring when the school urged us to separate Sam and Sarah into different classes for this academic year. It's school policy to split up twins, and so far this arrangement has been fine for Sarah, who makes friends easily and loves "school work." Sam, on the other hand, wants Sarah close by and relies on her to help with everything. In fact, Sam seemed to think she didn't really need to learn rules and routines because she could just follow Sarah's lead. Why should she print her name when Sarah could just do it for her?
In the end, the school left the decision up to us, but strongly urged us to place Sammy in a less advanced kindergarten group. The school reasoned that Sarah shouldn't be held back just because her sister is not at the same developmental level. Now, I'm regretting the arrangement. A long year looms ahead for Sam, and I wish I knew how to help.
The teacher's story: Slowly, reluctantly, Sammy is beginning to settle into our classroom without her sister. But it has been a difficult transition. According to Sammy's parents, Sammy and her twin sister have always been very close, and she clearly doesn't want to be apart from her. As we've observed, Sarah often leads and Sam follows, which has set Sam up to limit her own social and academic growth. In preschool, she would often let Sarah answer for her. As a result, Sarah's language skills are ahead of Sam's.
Sam is making friends and speaking up a bit more than she did the first week, however. Of course, it's still not easy for her to adjust, but that's all the more reason to help her to find her niche. I'm actually encouraged by how she complains to me now about Sarah's class having "better toys." She looks for Sarah at lunch and recess and seems to brighten up when she catches sight of her. When she's away from her sister, there are times that she looks sad, but then moments later, I'll see her giggling with another girl, and I am relieved. I wish we could record those happy moments to show her parents. How can I reassure them that everything's OK and help Sammy get through this adjustment period?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
In her book Raising Twins, Dr. Eileen Pearlman advises: "The only absolute rule about the best way to educate twins is that there are no absolute rules." A generation ago, it was standard practice to place twins in separate classrooms as soon as possible to allow the discovery of each one's separate identity. Ideally, schools now look at the needs of a set of twins and decide if and when to split them up. Choosing the timing of separate placements can be difficult - even for twins who remain in the same grade. It's a matter of deciding when a child will be okay on her own, and when the development of the twins' individual identities may be affected.
Fortunately, the school recognized the benefits of keeping Sam and Sarah together in preschool, a time when most twins still provide important support for each other. The parents might have waited until 1st grade to separate them, but making the change in kindergarten is not so radical; the girls are, after all, still in the same familiar building. Only the classroom and the amount of time they spend together throughout the day is different.
It's been a tough adjustment for Sam, but it seems she's making progress, and ultimately, the separation is likely to help her feel more confident. She's not shy about expressing her displeasures and is making social connections, both of which she might not have done as easily if Sarah were with her. The parents can help by inviting a school friend over to play on weekends or during vacation. Also, they can arrange for some separate activities at home and in the community. Sarah might go ice-skating while Sam plays soccer, for example.
Doing different activities allows the twins more opportunities to find special interests and make their own friends. In addition, Sarah and Sam have different needs, and separate classrooms will allow them to develop to their fullest academically. Sam's parents can expect things to turn around for her. In time, they will see both twins thriving in school.
The children's teachers might cooperate to allow the twins some brief time together during the day. Sam and Sarah could visit each other at lunch, on the playground, or in special activities. Some acknowledgement of their close relationship would be wise and will help to make their separation less abrupt. Sam's teacher has a bit more of a challenge in that she will have to help her make her way on her own. Lots of praise and encouragement can be extremely valuable. For all twins, the goal is to allow for the unique blossoming of each individual while still respecting their special closeness.