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.