My kindergarten-aged daughter is smart as a whip. I don't say that because I'm her mother, and I don't take credit for it either. I say it because it's true and always has been. She was young when she started talking and was highly verbal by her second birthday. She blew away the pediatrician, cashiers and waitresses when full sentences flowed out of her toddler mouth. When she entered preschool, teachers immediately noted her verbal and creative abilities. One of her earliest reports said that her understanding of the world around her was at a level "well beyond her age." She was my first child, and I wouldn't have known the difference. But soon, I came to realize that it wasn't just my imagination or undying love that made her look that way to me. She really was a very smart kid.
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Either way, I never dwelled on the way my daughter's young mind worked. I would've been just as content if teachers had been reporting that she was right on the mark socially and emotionally. All that mattered to me was that she was happy during her time spent in school and was developing well on all levels. She continued to thrive in her earliest schooling experiences, meeting and even exceeding expectations. But earlier this year, my daughter started elementary school, and right away, we noticed a major shift in her experiences.
Suddenly, she began to struggle in her kindergarten class. Reports came back saying she wasn't even close to hitting the mark for reading. She struggled to sit still each evening to complete her homework—something I thought a 5-year-old was too young for in the first place, after a seven-hour school day. She came home complaining that her legs hurt from sitting all day for lessons in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. At the halfway point in the school year, she only knew a handful of the 90 sight words she was supposed to have already memorized, with more on the way. Although I was impressed with the way she was sounding out words, apparently, those signs of early reading were just not enough for a 5-year-old. In fact, they weren't even close to where she was apparently supposed to be.
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As her parents, my husband and I were instructed to do more. Read to her more, spend more time on homework, and quiz her every day on her flashcards. But to me, the problem didn't seem to be a lack of dedication to her learning at home. We'd rarely missed a day reading books together since she was born. Going to the library and picking out new stacks of books every other week had always been one of her favorite activities. But while my daughter loved books and stories, being quizzed on sight words and asked to write sentences were not things she was ready to spend her time doing, and honestly, I didn't blame her. But I also knew that in order to keep up, we had better try.
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Time after time, my attempts failed, though. She got angry when I tried to push more schoolwork on her. She started to say she didn't like school or that she only liked music, gym and art. She protested when it was time for homework, or dawdled, and took an hour to complete it while I got frustrated trying to help. It just didn't feel right. I had been hearing about how elementary school had become exceedingly more and more demanding for young children, but I didn't think we'd notice it right away. I had hoped that given she was a pretty smart kid, her first year of real school wouldn't be too big of a problem, even if it was a little more academic these days. But I hadn't anticipated just how high the expectations would be. I hadn't even dreamed that halfway through the year, I'd be wondering what on earth we were going to do when it's time for first grade—or even if she'd be going to first grade.
I found myself between a rock and a hard place. While holding her back didn't really feel right, it started to look like the only option. My biggest fear was that her enthusiasm for learning, which was so intense just a few months ago, was fading. I worried how her confidence in her abilities might be shattered if she continued to fail to meet the expectations set for her in school. That thought became more important to me than what anyone might think of her repeating kindergarten. I knew she might not be thrilled about it either, but I had to ask myself, what's worse: her being one of the oldest kids in her class next year or pushing her forward when she is clearly not ready and watching her struggle as a result? I also heard from friends with slightly older children who needed a lot of help outside of school in the form of tutoring. I couldn't see my daughter being excited about even more schoolwork, just to be achieving at the level teachers said she should be.
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While it's not a pleasant situation to be in, I know I'm not alone. Many parents these days are faced with the same decision due to the growing demands placed on elementary school students. Even our youngest learners are expected to embrace the growing trend of more early academics, although it goes against good sense—and good science. Study after study shows the importance of self-directed play and socialization over academics for young children. Still, our public school systems continue to implement more early academics and less play all the time, even in our preschools. And the fact is, it doesn't help prepare kids for college or the real world any better. In fact, it has the opposite effect. They end up missing out on all the learning that comes from play and socialization. All this growing trend does is ensure that more children struggle earlier in school. It sets even smart kids up for failure, and it isn't right.
It has little to do with intelligence; it has to do with readiness. And many kindergarteners simply aren't ready for the material being presented to them; my daughter included. But if time is all she needs, I'm willing to give that to her. No, holding her back in kindergarten is not ideal. It's a choice I wish we didn't have to make. But I'm just not prepared to sacrifice her emotional well-being to keep up appearances. I know my kid is smart, but the fact is, she won't know that about herself if I push her harder and harder so that she can keep up with increasingly unrealistic expectations. Kids these days need us to be patient because they all learn differently. But if the public school system will not address that, then I will make the system work for us and give her another year of kindergarten, if I truly feel that's what she needs. There's no race to the finish, regardless of what we're tricked into thinking. So, I might just let her go at her own pace, slow and steady, but exactly where she needs to be.