The Universal Notebook: Kindergarten blues

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A little boy I love very much is not happy with kindergarten. Educators mean well of course, but there are just so, so many ways that school can make life hard for a child.

Back when I was in elementary school in the late 1950s a misguided attempt to individualize instruction nearly ruined reading for me. How I hated the SRA Reading Lab.

The Science Research Associates idea was sound enough. Let each child progress at his or her own pace through a series of color-coded reading cards, reading for speed and comprehension, moving up through the colors from lime, aqua, blue, purple and violet to rose, red, orange, gold and brown.

Just thinking about it now more than 50 years later I can feel the anxiety that dreaded box of SRA readings produced. I hated the idea that reading had been turned into a competition, a contest where everyone could see who was winning just by looking at what color a kid was reading. Color me blue.

Now I have a grandchild whose love of books and learning is being jeopardized by a color-coded clip-chart behavior system. As I understand it, each little child starts the day on green. If they behave themselves they can move up to blue (good day) or purple (great day) or down to orange (not so good) and red (call parents). The child then has to take their color of the day home with them.

Why would you do such a thing to a 5-year-old? Color me red.

My grandson’s experience, as it happens, is mirrored in an article titled “Why I Will Never Use a Behavior Chart Again” on a Teaching in Progress website:

“I remembered my own son coming home from kindergarten, day after day, in tears because he just couldn’t seem to stay on ‘green.’ He wanted so badly to behave. He wanted to please his teachers. He wanted mom and dad to be proud of him. But his impulsivity did not allow him to keep himself in check for the whole school day. Every time she moved that clip, he was being reminded that he wasn’t good enough for his teacher. That kindergarten year was one of the hardest years our family has endured.”

Because I am 60 years removed and my daughters are 20 to 30 years out of kindergarten, I spoke last week to several teachers and visited a kindergarten class to see what kindergarten is like now.

First, no one had anything good to say about the color-coded behavior clip-chart system that is the source of much of my grandson’s unhappiness. My daughter, however, is concerned that the adoption of Common Core standards has placed too much emphasis on academic achievement at a time in a child’s life when social skills and self-awareness are the most important forms of knowledge to acquire. There is no play time and teachers don’t have time to adequately instruct little kids in non-academic routines, like going to lunch and getting on the bus.

A veteran educator whose opinion I value told me that Common Core standards have made teaching and learning more “rigorous” and are the reason all-day kindergarten is now necessary. She approved of the Common Core, but she admitted that some of the standards are unrealistic and not developmentally appropriate, like expecting kindergartners to write fluently using appropriate upper- and lower-case letters.

Another veteran educator whose opinion I value told me the Common Core standards have made teaching and learning more “stressful” and had accelerated the curriculum such that kindergartners are now doing what used to be first-grade work.

The school I visited is the same school where my daughter was traumatized on her first day of school when, not knowing the routine, she dumped her lunch tray into the wrong basket and got yelled at by a custodian. I had lunch with her every day for two weeks until she got over that unhappy experience. They tell me that wouldn’t happen today.

Seven years ago, the school adopted the Responsive Classroom system, one of the primary characteristics of which is a deliberate modeling of behaviors so that every child is shown, and practices with the teacher, things like going to lunch and getting on the bus. Teachers told me that can be tedious at first, but by January the kids are all comfortable with how things are done and things just hum along.

Both my daughter and my grandson would have benefited from a Responsive Classroom regimen, but I still can’t help thinking that over-stressing academics in kindergarten and adding the pressure of a color-coded daily deportment system is a formula for damaging a little child’s enthusiasm for school.

Color me blue.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Kafir911
    • peterplus

      Boy oh boy, you are one terrified fool. I would eagerly trade a thousand morons like yourself for a thousand Syrian refugees.

      • Kafir911

        Brilliant come back.

  • Chew H Bird

    While color coded behavior ratings seem asinine, I will comment that I loved the SRA reading labs and as a kids we did compete to see who could score the best. It greatly benefited all of us and we even formed “teams” and the better readers assisted those who were a bit slow to help them reach higher levels. It was more co-opetition than competition.

  • Queenie42

    I started kindergarten in 1947. I lived in a small town with many neighborhood schools. Our teachers all read to us, as did many parents, mine included. While we were young the teachers would combine reading to us during rest time or when it was too cold to go outside. Our music teacher even played classical music while we drew pictures of what we “saw” in the music.
    One of my favorite books, “The Yearling” was read to us by a teacher who had a farm. I remember the sweet smell of hay on her if we needed a “cuddle” after a scraped knee or minor injury. Life was easy then and growing up was guided by love and respect. We did not have competitions as this would have been too stressful and would have made us dread being called a “loser”. We were treated by teachers as if we were their own. They loved us and we loved them.
    Learning to read and being read to shaped my early years and I now read hundreds of books yearly. For this, I thank my parents and teachers and the one-room schools we attended. We were blessed. It opened doors that no one can shut and widened my horizons.
    I feel so sorry for the little ones who are just starting out today. They seem to have so much technology that it has drowned out imagination. Life is too literal for them at that age and television, imho, deprives them of that rare time when it is just you, a book and quiet thoughts. A chance to be an individual, a person first above all else.

    • EABeem

      Not sure why everyone is in such a hurry for little kids to grow up. I preferred kindergarten when it was a time of learning social skills and creative play. My mother majored in early childhood education at Westbrook Jr. College and Lesley College and taught nursery school at Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland before I was born and then Allyn Day School in Westbrook when I was young. She would be horrified at what kindergarten has become.

  • Jason Coombs

    I still remember my kindergarten teachers name, Mrs. McDonald, great lady. Unfortunately, that’s also where my understanding of being from the “wrong side” of town came in. Once my one year at Jordan acres ended, the kids of east Brunswick were bussed past it to the Hawthorne school. The teachers were phenomenal, the tarred playground not so much. Even today I still see it. Not to long ago, a article right here in this paper quated a interviewee from Brunswick stating ” that area isn’t really part of Brunswick. Today as then, we still have no playgrounds, athletic fields, etc for the kids. Unless I’m willing to let my 10 year old cross 8 lanes of cooks corner traffic. Thankfully, I had great teachers who taught me well and how to overcome and thrive. Thank you to all of them who taught us kids from the “around side” of town.

  • Ted

    When I stop to think about it, our educational system is as much about control, regimentation, and conformity, as it is about educating children. Throughout the history of humans (until now), education has been something that was passed down from generation to generation, in situ. Now, we force kids out of the home, separate them by age (and sometimes gender and ability), and school them on being square-pegged technocrats.

    It just doesn’t seem natural.

  • SoPo Grandma

    Friends of Casco Bay included a great film about the “Forest Kindergartens” in Switzerland in this years Wild and Scenic Film Festival. In Switzerland kindergartens, children are encouraged to work together to solve problems and to develop their interpersonal skills. Competition among children has no part in the program. Check out We can learn a lot from that approach.

    • EABeem

      Thank you. I’ll check it out.