Kate Scott is a bright, vivacious 6-year-old who is eager to start kindergarten this fall. She mastered her basic skills in preschool. In fact, many of the skills she’s learned are the same ones she’ll be learning — once again — in her kindergarten classroom.
Kate is not unusual in an age when many parents read to their children at birth (or before) and then send them to highly academic preschool programs. Some students, prepped from infancy, enter kindergarten more than equipped to handle the work. Parents of these children worry that their child won’t be challenged if their classmates aren’t at the same level.
That’s why it surprises many to learn that, according to the Washington State Department of Early Learning, half of all children in this state aren’t ready for kindergarten. These kids don’t have the language, communication and literacy skills expected of them. This often happens when families don’t have the time or resources to prepare their kids for kindergarten, according to Vaughnetta Barton, executive director of the Foundation for Early Learning (FEL).
Kindergarten expectations have risen considerably over the last decade. Teachers — feeling pressure from school districts, parents and an uptick in standardized testing — now introduce skills in kindergarten they once taught in first grade. The fallout? A sizable gap between students entering the class kindergarten ready and those who are not yet up to speed.
Some kids can already read, while others are still learning their letters, says Becky Bostrom, a kindergarten teacher at Mountlake Terrace Elementary School. “Students who have never been in any type of school or group setting are in the same classroom as children who have been in day care, preschool, or have spent time playing, sharing and cooperating,” she says. “There are children who have never been read to before and children ready to read on their own.”
It’s not easy for those kids who come in without basic skills to catch up, says Sarah Borgida, program officer at the FEL. And the ones who enter ahead of the curve? “Kids who are overprepared for kindergarten may not be academically challenged in the classroom; they may end the year with new friends, but without many new academic skills,” she says.
Bostrom says it’s possible for those who are eager to learn to catch up with the others once they’ve been in a classroom setting. “At the end of the year, all the students have had exposure, experience and opportunity to grow, learn and practice. If a child comes into kindergarten with very little experience, but is curious, willing and enjoys learning, that child will most likely make tremendous growth,” she says.
And school-savvy students like Kate won’t necessarily be stuck twiddling their thumbs. Robin Heliotis, a kindergarten teacher at Peter Kirk Elementary School in Kirkland, finds that kids have a drive to learn, and that keeps them moving forward. “They take what they already know and adapt it to a new situation.”
She warns that parents often plant the idea of boredom in the child’s mind. “Parents need to realize that their child is not going to fall behind or lose what they already know. They will leave kindergarten reading better and more, no matter if the other children are working on letter sounds,” says Heliotis.
Social skills count
Reading skills are just one part of the equation. Social skills can be just as important. If a student can’t go with the flow of the classroom, teachers aren’t able to teach.
“Our brains have evolved to learn from other humans. For the first three to five years, children really learn best from other people,” says Gina Lebedeva, director of translation, outreach and education at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) in Seattle. “When you join their world and respond to their lead and to their interests at their pace, that’s when high-quality learning really takes place.”
According to Lebedeva, one of the best indications of how well kids will do socially and academically is the ability to control impulses.
Kids who can self-regulate have some ability to control their own behavior. This skill was tested for its relationship to school success in the 1960s marshmallow study at Stanford University. In the study, children were given the choice of taking a small number of marshmallows right away or waiting 15 minutes for twice as many. Children able to wait, or delay gratification, later were found to be more successful in school than those who couldn’t control the impulse to eat the first marshmallow.
How does that translate into classroom behavior?
“Kids who show stronger self-regulation, even before school starts, tend to learn more effectively in school later on,” says Lebedeva.
Chera Prideaux, a freelance writer and mother, lives in Seattle.