A very reliable way of assessing children’s readiness for kindergarten is to bring twelve four-and-a-half-year-olds together for a one-hour mock kindergarten class. A teacher greets parent and child at the door, and the parent says good-bye. Most of the time the children leave their parents happily and launch off into what for them is a super play-date.
Occasionally, a child will whine at the classroom door and cling to the parent. Respect the child. Whether the child is truly not ready or simply playing her “I need you, Mommy” game, take the child seriously, and make arrangements for them to come back some other Saturday.
Normally, the children walk right in and start to explore the classroom, going from table to table engaging in the fun activities that the teacher has prepared around the room. Halfway through the hour the teacher calls the students together to sit “criss-cross-apple-sauce” in a circle, learn a song and have a talk. Then she sends them back to the tables, where they work on their own or in small groups.
Two other teachers are in the room taking notes on student behavior with a special eye to a certain rubric we called “the ladder of success.” Does the child speak up, listen to others, take turns, engage with the materials around the room, make choices, share, and respond to adults?
When I participated, I welcomed the parents into a nearby classroom to drink coffee and chat. After the children went home, the teachers and I got together in the classroom to talk about what we had observed.
In one such event young Ryan made a big impression on the teachers. He was the only one of twelve students who was unable to pursue his own interests, work with others, and engage in the activities on his own.
“He seemed not to know what to do unless I told him what to do,” said one teacher.
“Interesting,” I said. “At coffee Ryan’s parents made a point of telling me all they had done at home to teach him academic skills and get him ready for kindergarten. For instance they used bath time to help him practice his math facts on flash cards.”
No wonder that in class Ryan kept looking at the teacher for direction. In their conscientious attempt to make sure he was prepared, Ryan’s parents had inadvertently undermined his ability to do what kindergarten would require of him. Their focus on academic acceleration was compromising him as a student.
The ability to observe and assess, solve problems, control your body, work things out with others, and express yourself—these are the basics. These manifestations of a well-developed pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain in charge of decision-making) are the essential requirements for any kind of success in and out of school, and they are not a function of age. Helen displayed these abilities during her diplomatic triumph in the sandbox at the age of three.
Infants start working on these skills right away, and unless they are over-protected or isolated, they have had over 40,000 hours of practice by the age of five.
Do adults have a role in preparing our children for kindergarten? Of course: support them in their natural inclination to take on challenges, get frustrated, get into trouble, make a mistake, fix it and try again.
- Relish their increased response ability as they make decisions.
- Facilitate their use of mistakes, failure and conflict to understand reality.
- Admire evidence of courage, clever strategizing, perseverance and practice… and ignore ability.
Sure, knowing your letters, colors and numbers are basic, but they are not determiners of success and striving to focus children here can distract us from the main business at hand—building a strong brain.
Still there is an elephant in the room. What if school is mostly about rote learning, the acquisition of facts and acceleration through the 3 R’s? Doesn’t that mean the best preparation is the one provided by Ryan’s parents?
No. The reason a fully developed brain should be our focus is that a strong brain works better in any environment. Children who can observe, assess, analyze, act and express themselves with self-control will be able to determine the best strategy for being as successful as possible in any environment—including learning how to get an education from a bad teacher.