Education experts widely recognize that a strong early childhood education is an important factor to set kids up for success in school. But whether kindergarten is more like preschool or elementary school has long been an open question that leaves teachers caught in-between. For some children kindergarten is the first time they’ve been to school, and at five-years-old they’re still too young to shoulder the anxiety and pressure of benchmark testing. All this leaves kindergarten teachers in a tough spot — they are required to teach an increasingly demanding set of standards, but many are also trained in child development and see the new demands as developmentally inappropriate.
Lisa Minicozzi was an elementary school principal before she went back to school for her doctorate in early childhood education. She’s now a professor of education at Adelphi University, where she instructs teachers in-training and studies effective teaching practice in classrooms. She recently published an article in the Global Studies of Childhood journal entitled “The garden is thorny: Teaching kindergarten in the age of accountability,” in which she documents how veteran kindergarten teachers navigate more rigorous expectations for students along with their own deeply held beliefs about how young children should learn.
“I have witnessed the changes myself and have felt the frustrations as an administrator and as a parent of a young child myself,” Minicozzi said of the “academic trickle down” that has affected day-to-day kindergarten routines. In classrooms that seemed to be navigating the shift well Minicozzi saw some common themes: first, the kindergarten educators had the support of administrators to determine what was developmentally appropriate.
Second, veteran teachers saw themselves as experts and were confident dissecting the standards and designing units that met them, without giving up their beliefs about how young children learn. In exemplar classrooms Minicozzi never saw kids sitting in rows for long periods of time or doing worksheets. Rather, teachers held exploration and movement at the center of the practice, essentially designing thematic project-based learning units.
“We know from educational theory what works,” Minicozzi said. “Kids should be actively engaged. They should be outside. They should be moving, exploring. They should have multiple opportunities to explore at different times.” She worries that as schools adopt Common Core State Standards school administrators will continue to push more content and direct instruction into kindergarten. She sees veteran teachers who are successfully navigating the shift as important mentors for novice teachers who will need that same strength and skill when they get into classrooms.
“I feel that most of the programs that have come out of alignment to Common Core have academic challenges that are way above what they should be doing,” said kindergarten teacher Mojdeh Hassani. She co-teaches at a public school on Long Island. She says she believes in challenging students, but the difference is that now there are many more discrete units that have to be crammed into each day, forcing her young students to move too quickly between tasks.
Hassani says they are expected to teach a 45 minute math block, a 45 minute reading block, 45 minutes of phonics, science, social studies and other special programming as well. That’s too many transitions for a young student and doesn’t leave enough time for the play-based and experiential learning that has long been a hallmark of kindergarten.
“The structure, the rigor of the day is too much for them,” Hassani said.” And that rigor is making kids more anxious about what’s coming up.” She has noticed in recent years that kids have a harder time paying attention because they are worried about the next transition. And she doesn’t have enough time to dive deeply into topics so she worries those same concepts will have to be retaught again later in students’ elementary careers.
“We have to try to get the curriculum done because we have a timelines that we have to stick to, so we have to try to get things done,” Hassani said. But, “If we feel we’re losing kids, we will try to give them more movement breaks.” While Hassani and her co-teacher are always prepared to follow the curriculum, they often have to read the energy of their students and switch tasks if students’ eyes are glazing over.
“That rushing, that dipping your feet into something and not digging really deep into anything, I don’t believe in that kind of teaching,” Hassani said.“I feel like we are training kids to not dig deep into anything. They are just happy and satisfied doing the bare minimum.”
Veteran teachers like Hassani can’t completely shield their pupils from the more rigorously paced day and jam-packed schedule, but she does everything she can to hold onto the parts of kindergarten she thinks are most important: hands-on, exploratory play and social and emotional learning. She tries to weave those lessons throughout everything she’s doing. The other key is to have a clear structure and to hold kids accountable to it.
“I don’t think teachers should be afraid to have the structure to run an effective classroom,” Hassani said. “I think kids at this age need structure. They demand the structure. They learn through it.” She doesn’t want kids guessing about what’s coming up because then that anxiety takes over the learning space.
“To be a good teacher I think is to be able to balance the structure and the kindness and softness that’s necessary for teachers to connect with every student,” she said. Hossani isn’t concerned about the argument that without the rigorous standards in kindergarten some kids will be left behind. She said her job has always been to differentiate for students, including the ones who’ve never attended school before, but that doesn’t mean kindergarten teachers should have to rush through important foundational topics.
“The amount we are trying to fit in the day is too much, not the content itself,” Hassani said. “I still feel we are missing the boat with what’s developmentally appropriate.”
In her pre-service training classes Minicozzi is frantically trying to help novice teachers develop the confidence Hassani has to stick up for developmentally appropriate teaching as much as possible. She constantly visits classrooms to learn from techniques teachers are using and then tweaks her college-course curriculum.
Despite everything she’s seen and experienced with her own son, who left kindergarten feeling like he wasn’t a good reader because he hadn’t reached a certain level, Minicozzi feels hopeful about the future of kindergarten education. “I feel that the pendulum is swinging back because so many parents are concerned about the pressures and anxieties that the teachers feel, which comes back to the kids in the classroom,” Minicozzi said.
She says the important thing to keep in mind is that children develop at different rates and, barring any significant learning difficulty, that’s normal. Parents sometimes think if their child learns to read earlier he or she will have an academic head start, but Minicozzi said the research doesn’t support that view. A student who learns to read a little later will be able to read just as well. The research does show that the social and emotional foundation of kindergarten is incredibly important, and that those simple lessons about how to take turns, to share and to get along with others are critical to later academic success.