Surviving Kindergarten

They’re making Venn diagrams, writing poetry journals and doing homework. Being 5 just isn’t what it used to be.



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Ironically, even as parents and experts debate whether kindergartners should be pushed into academics so early, the county is figuring out how to ensure even more learning occurs. Its new integrated kindergarten curriculum will start in the 2011-2012 school year, with content areas connecting more, so that social studies concepts, for example, cross over into the reading program.

Kristine Donohue, a kindergarten teacher at Bethesda Elementary School, says teachers she has trained have said they had trouble fitting everything in. “This [curriculum] gives an enhanced method on how to do that,” she says.

And then there’s homework. MCPS policy calls for homework three to five times a week for elementary school students.

Each principal may establish homework expectations and recommend how long to spend on assignments. Wyngate currently says kindergartners should spend no more than 10 minutes on an assignment. But my son, Trey, rarely managed that with homework every weeknight. Whether he needed to find pictures that started with the letter “T” in a magazine, sound out words in a simple book, or draw or write about the setting of a favorite story, Trey would be fidgety and often completely upside down in the chair before he even began.

Colleen Schrier says it’s even worse with her son, who was nearing the end of his kindergarten year at Flower Valley Elementary School in Rockville when we spoke. At school, he puts “his game face on” and does well, she says, but homework is a constant struggle and can take an hour or more. As motivation, Schrier rewards his efforts with M&M’s. “I have no other ideas on what to do,” she says. “At that time of day he is completely done, and he doesn’t want to do any of that. He just wants to run.”

Almon, of the Alliance for Childhood, says research suggests homework doesn’t accomplish a lot at that age. She thinks there should be more focus on play after school, particularly free play, where a child can develop his or her own ideas and social skills.

“Play is so important for children’s total development, including their intellectual development, that I’d give that the highest priority at this point,” she says. “I think the teachers would find the children much fresher and ready to learn the next day.”

It’s a spring afternoon when I walk into my daughter’s preschool and find her closeted indoors, writing “B, B, B” in her “Letter Book” while classmates run in the playground. She needs to finish her lesson before she can play.

I say to myself: She’s not even 5. Shouldn’t she be playing, not writing “B”—boring, boring, boring—over and over again? But then I remember Trey’s experience three years earlier. At least she’ll be prepared for kindergarten, I think.

Transition Tips

Here’s advice from the experts on how parents can help their child have a positive experience in today’s kindergarten.

  • Prep your child by reviewing the curriculum at www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/curriculum/elementary/parentguides/english/ParentGuideKindergarten.pdf. To learn more about the Seven Keys to College Readiness, go to www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/info/keys/.
  • If a child is struggling with academics or feeling down, request help from the teacher and school counselor, says Deena Kotlewski, professional counselor at Flower Hill Elementary School in Gaithersburg and a licensed clinical professional counselor with a practice in Chevy Chase.
  • “Some children’s strengths…are not necessarily based in academics,” Kotlewski says, “so a parent can focus on the strengths that a child does have—a fast runner or a great sharer. The other things will come.
  • Be sure your kindergartner gets a good breakfast, says Elisa Zied, a New York-based dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is going to work wonders in helping them focus and pay attention and sit for long periods of time,” she says. Zied suggests a grain, a fruit and a protein, even if it’s just milk, with plenty of fiber in the mix. “A protein-fiber combination will help fill them up through the day and provide energy,” she says. She offers her kids a high-fiber cereal mixed with a small amount of a sugary one, topped with skim milk, or whole-wheat toast with peanut butter.
  • Sleep is also key, says Rockville pediatrician Dr. Cynthia Fishman. “Kids who are well rested do better at school,” she says. “They can pay attention better and sit for longer periods of time.” Kindergartners generally need about 10 hours of sleep at least, Fishman says. “If you have trouble waking up your child in the morning, then they should go to bed earlier. They should wake up naturally and in a good mood.” To ensure that her own daughter, now 8, got sufficient sleep as a kindergartner, Fishman kept to a strict schedule, allowing 15 minutes for homework (the time recommended by the teacher) whether it was completed or not.
  • Some kids need to put off homework until later in the evening and burn off energy instead, says Alison Harper, a kindergarten teacher at Arcola Elementary School in Silver Spring. “They need to run and scream and feel like they can move their body any way they want and just make their own choices,” she says.

Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who has written for The Washington Post among other publications. 

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