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Kindergarten: Now Harder than Ever!

Amanda Bradwell

When I went to my daughter's kindergarten orientation, the teachers said the kids would be studying reading and math, as well as Spanish, art, and music. There would be a poetry night and field trips. I wanted to ask if I'd accidentally wandered into a grad school!

Kindergarten has changed dramatically over the past decade. It's called the “push-down effect”: Academic content in all grades is being ramped up, making preschool the new kindergarten, kindergarten the new first grade, and so on.

More will be expected of your child than was ever asked of you (or even his big brother) at his age. (And maybe that's not such a bad thing, considering we're just 14th out of 34 developed nations in reading skills, 17th in science, and a below-average 25th in mathematics.) Read on to see what's changed since you sat on a carpet square.

Big Change #1: It's an All-Day Thing

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 72 percent of kindergartners now go to a full-day program (up from about 50 percent in 1995). “It allows time for my son to receive instruction across a range of topics, have phys ed, and socialize,” says Ariel Herr, whose 6-year-old, Barrett, attends a daylong program in Richardson, TX. Studies show full-day kindergartners learn more math and reading than those in half-day programs (though the benefits seem to level off by the end of first grade). And it's easier for parents to have kids in one place all day.

The longer, more relaxed day is also more in tune with the way kids learn, says Amber Brown, Ed.D., director of the Early Education Program at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Kindergartners do better when you break up the day with alternating activities,” she adds. It's not that they're covering more material in full-day programs; it's just that they have more time in which to cover it.

In the beginning, expect a few bumps as your kid adjusts to his schedule. Six or so hours of being in class—even with lunch, special activities, and recess breaks—is a major transition for a 5-year-old, including kids who've already been in daycare or preschool.

What to do Now

Feed your kid healthy meals. Good food provides stamina and boosts brainpower. Limit sugary snacks and make sure your child's breakfast includes some fiber and protein to keep her on an even keel. (If you pack a school snack or serve one after school, make it equally well-balanced. For great ideas, visit parenting.com/gallery/healthy-kids-snacks.)

Limit after-school commitments. One lesson, sports practice, or other structured activity per week is enough to start with. “Make sure it's something your child really wants to do, and not just what all the other neighborhood kids are signing up for,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Push bedtime up a bit. “Settling your child down a half hour earlier may give him the boost he needs,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. He should be able to wake up in the morning without help.

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Big Change #2: “A” is for “Assignment”

Today's kindergartners are expected to be able to read, write, and do simple math before moving on to first grade. “In general, the curriculum has been pushed down a year in both reading and math,” says Borba. One major reason: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which required regular assessments of children in public schools.

Along with stepped-up academics in kindergarten comes homework. “My son Logan had homework a few times a week,” says Michelle Eger, a Sewickley, PA, mom of two. “It wasn't a big deal—things like ‘Count the number of steps in your house.’” Other parents, like Melia Wilkinson of Baltimore, found it a nuisance. “It seemed like busywork most of the time,” she says.

NCLB standards also led some districts to more scripted instruction—that is, teachers following pre-written lessons. Annie Beckett, Ph.D., early childhood specialization coordinator for the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University, says that although structure is great—especially for at-risk kids who don't have it at home—teachers shouldn't rely on too many worksheets and drills. They're just not that fun. “You might get immediate results but no long-term love of learning,” she says. Kyle Pruett, M.D., coauthor of Partnership Parenting and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Child Study Center at Yale, agrees. “The responsible science that exists on this matter doesn't really support the race to the top,” he says. “One well-known study tracked children from preschool through fourth grade and found that those who'd had a curriculum in preschool and kindergarten that stressed a lot of imaginary play actually outperformed peers whose early schooling had a more cognitive approach.”

What to do Now

Make sure your kid gets “sandbox 101” time. With the shift to more academics, playtime can sometimes get cut down—and that's where kids learn many social skills, says Borba. So at home, give your child every chance to play with other kids in an unstructured environment like a fenced-in backyard or an indoor playroom.

Do fun activities with a learning component. Try snuggling together and reading, or picking up Cheerios with chopsticks to hone fine motor skills.

Soothe his stress. If your child regresses to thumb sucking, bed-wetting, or separation anxiety, discuss an action plan with his teacher, says Brown.

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Big Change #3: New Tech, and Techniques

For the most part, the neat rows of desks facing the chalkboard are a thing of the past. (Today's kindergartners are more likely to use whiteboards or even iPads, for one thing.) Anne Willoughby, a Pittsburgh mom of three, was relieved that her active son, Owen, wasn't expected to sit at a desk all day when he started kindergarten. “He had a teacher who was very into playing sports with the kids,” she says.

Indeed, the best kindergarten teachers incorporate fun, play, and movement into their lessons, says Lisa Fiore, Ph.D., a professor in the graduate school of education at Lesley University, in Cambridge, MA. “It doesn't have to be all academics or all play. You can meet academic goals in fun ways—for instance, if you have kids who learn by movement, you can use music to get them going.” Other neat tricks teachers use: having the kids draw or jot words in journals to practice writing; putting on plays to boost literacy skills; measuring ingredients and cooking to learn math skills.

Most important: The joy of learning needs to be front and center no matter what the kids are working on, stresses Brown—and many teachers (including your child's, hopefully!) find a way to do that.

What to do Now

Volunteer in the classroom. It's a great way to see firsthand what goes on during the day and gives you a better sense of where the teacher is coming from when you meet for conferences.

Tell funny family stories at home. “Research shows that kids who are strong readers in high school had specific types of early experiences,” says Beckett. “When they were preschool and kindergarten age, they had extended conversations with family and friends about memorable experiences.” So talk, about vacation memories and the time Dad tripped and dropped your homemade pie (you're over it, right?).

Zero in on her interests. “When I was a kindergarten teacher, one of the most meaningful lessons we had was about a butterfly cocoon,” says Beckett. “The kids were fascinated, so I built a whole lesson around it.”

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