I am one of those people that could be a career student. I always loved school. From a young age, I always knew that I would attend law school one day and I was very confident that I would pass the California bar exam (the most difficult to pass in the country) on my first try. And I did. And then practiced for less than a year (but that’s another story!).
So you can imagine the high academic expectations that I have for my children. I just assumed they would be like me, and excel in school and academics from a young age.
That’s the wonderful thing about parenthood. Just when you think you have everything figured out, you get knocked on your ass with another surprise, and have to navigate a brave new world, filled with anxiety and apprehension that you just might be screwing up your child’s life. At the tender age of 5, this decision you are making might impact their chance at going to Harvard. Oh the pressure we put on ourselves as parents today!
But the reality is, childhood IS dramatically different today than it was when we were kids. Kindergarten used to be around three hours and consist of play-based educational activities like spelling your name in macaroni. I still have my silver macaroni craft somewhere at my parent’s house. While reading was introduced, it was not a central focus. Instead, the goal was for reading to be mastered by the end of 1st grade. I learned to read early in Kindergarten, but many kids were just starting to pick it up at the end of the year.
There was no homework.
There were no tests.
It was designed to introduce kids to school with the focus around fun activities. We used to watch Sesame Street once a week!
Well that form of Kindergarten no longer exists today. It has been replaced by 1st grade, moved down a grade, with all of the expectations that to be honest, are not appropriate for 5 and 6 year olds just being introduced to “real school.” As part of “No Child Left Behind,” Kindergarten now includes daily homework with assignments like writing “On Wednesdays I go to the library” and counting 9 + 5, tests every Friday, “rainbow words” that kids need to memorize and large projects (that honestly, adults have to do 90% of the work).
It’s intense. While I appreciate that harder standards have been applied to kids, the pressure and testing placed up them today is way too much. There are far better ways to help children become successful, critical thinking, innovative problem solvers than just cramming in a year’s worth of knowledge into a lower grade, a constant stream of tests, and an emphasis away from learning by doing.
But I can’t change the system (well maybe we can, but that’s another blog post!) all I can do is figure out what is best for my son.
As a boy with a summer birthday, we knew Grayson would be one of the youngest kids in his class. The age cut-off in California was slowly moved up from December 31 to September 1 over the past few years due to parents “red-shirting” their kids after the smash success of the Outliers book. That book showed how the majority of professional athletes on a hockey team had birthdays from January – March, making them the oldest kids in their class. It was posited that older kids in a grade have several advantages, as they are more advanced physically, mentally and emotionally, are able to learn faster, are stronger, and therefore more confident than their peers.
There is truth to this theory. Placing children in school by their birth date with a year long age range of course is going to produce substantial differences in the abilities of children. Think about the difference between a newborn and a 6-month old baby who might be crawling, and then a 1-year old who might be walking or even running. While the difference between 5 and 6 isn’t quite as dramatic, there is a HUGE difference in a child who is an entire YEAR older.
A Stanford study just came out that Danish kids who started kindergarten a year later did better in school, with results lasting throughout their academic careers. (Fortunately this study just came out and bolsters my thinking about having my son repeat kinder!)
There are times that my kids wake up from naps and have seemingly changed their features or matured, seemingly in a mere hour! Instead of imposing strict date cut-offs for each grade, it would seem better to test or interview children to find out where they are in their growth, development and maturity and then deciding where to place each child. A boy who is born in the summer is almost always going to be significantly behind a girl born on the same day, and very behind a boy born a full 10, 11 or 12 months before him.
When my son was “graduating” from preschool, I was not sure he was ready to start kindergarten. Yet his preschool didn’t offer a Pre-K option, and he was too advanced for another year of the oldest preschool class.
So we decided to try kindergarten, agreeing to see what happens. From day one, I spoke to his principal and told her we may need to repeat. She was less than receptive, and said only one girl was repeating. I met with her to change his class assignment from a room with 15 out of 24 kids who completed Pre-K together in the same classroom, with the same teacher that my son was assigned to for Kinder. These 15 kids were already fully reading and writing, and substantially more advanced than my son. Why would they put my very young kindergartener in a room with 15 kids who are a FULL YEAR older than him?!
In addition, his classroom had 15 boys out of 24 kids, which I also did not think would bode well for a young boy, who may be more easily distracted than his peers.
We were able to get his class changed, thankfully From the beginning, we could tell he was less mature than his classmates. While his behavior and focus were both excellent, his fine motor skills and readiness to learn letters and start reading were both lagging. At back to school night, we could instantly find his artwork by looking for the chicken scratch and big looping characters that somewhat resembled letters. He was trying so hard, but we could see from the beginning that he was young for his class. And he is still working on his speech as well.
Let me stop here, and say that if your child has s summer birthday, and is struggling in kindergarten – DO NOT STRESS! They are NOT slow, or stupid, or destined for academic struggles. They are just YOUNG!
Remember when your baby tried to crawl? They would sit and figure out how they would do it. Or maybe they would get into a crawling position and rock back and forth and not know what to do next? They were interested, but something had not yet clicked in their brain. This is exactly what my son was going through. He enjoyed kindergarten. He loved the structure, the social aspects, his teacher, and the activities. But something for him just hadn’t “clicked” yet, he was just a bit too young compared to his classmates.
When school started again in January after winter break, I felt like my son was where many of the kids were in September.
And so, I started feeling like though my son has mastered his letters, and memorized two rainbow word lists, he is just getting to the point of really being academically mature enough for kindergarten. Had Pre-K been an option for us, privately or through our school, it would have been a better fit for him. The option was not presented for him to attend pre-K instead of kinder by the Principal until the day that I asked her to change his class, and this was only 3 days before school was starting. We decided against it because the Pre-K program was moved from our school to another elementary school a few miles away due to space issues and my son had been planning on starting kindergarten for months.
And so, I did what most moms do today and I asked my facebook friends if anyone held their child back and what the outcomes were. I received over 100 comments and over 25 private messages with stories from moms encouraging me to stick with my gut instinct and have him repeat Kindergarten. Mom after mom told me how beneficial it was for their child or shared that they wished they had held their child back.
The takeaways were
One friend who wrote her masters on holding younger children back a grade at Harvard reached out to me, and shared with me all of the research and studies that showed how much better it is for young kids to have the “gift of time” as she called it. And again, Stanford just published a new study that shows this same outcome.
And so, one day I told my son’s teacher that I was thinking about holding him back. Her response was immediate, she was thinking about the same thing. She was so relieved that I reached this decision before she had to bring it up, as I imagine for some parents it may come as quite a surprise.
But it is what is best for my son. He is not failing kindergarten. He is currently on grade level for everything except reading and writing. He is not stupid. He is just young. He needs more time to grow and mature, and will thrive in kindergarten next year. If you have the same feelings about your child, I implore you to really search deep, and do what is best for your child.
Kindergarten is the easiest grade to repeat. I have a friend who told me she feels the same way I do about her 1st grader, but he is more socially aware at 6 years old. He will likely be more impacted by repeating 1st grade as opposed to my 5 year-old, who is totally fine with repeating.
Remember, the gift of time is never a bad thing in life!