Two Antidotes to 'Kindergarten Cram'
In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein voices the worries that many middle-income parents are having about kindergarten: Have we gone overboard in trying to make sure our students are academically prepared? In her piece, "Kindergarten Cram," Orenstein asks: "What was the rush?" "How did 5 become the new 7, anyway?"
As the mother of two daughters -- one in 1st grade and another about to enter kindergarten in a Title I public school -- I often have the same thoughts. Not to mention my own nostalgia for those few kindergarten days I remember myself, apple-picking under a blue sky and dipping a brush into a gooey vat of paste during art projects.
But I also have high regard for research that shows the benefits of introducing academic concepts related to literacy, science and math skills in pre-k and kindergarten classrooms. Kindergartens that fail to support these developing skills, that take a lackadaisical approach to teaching and learning, can be harmful too, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have access to a lot of books or curiosity-provoking conversation at home. Intentional, purposeful and thoughtful teaching -- not just watching from afar, but guiding and prompting questions -- is critical.
The good news is that we're seeing a growing movement that advocates for the preservation of playtime and child-centered exploration while also recognizing the need for this kind of intentional teaching. (Maybe that's because the alternative appears to be kindergarten redshirting, the controversial practice of holding children back from kindergarten until they are 6 -- or nearly 6 -- years old. Research reported here, and described in a fascinating article in Slate, shows that the longterm effect of that practice may not be so beneficial.) The release last month of the report titled "Crisis in the Kindergarten," by the research and advocacy group Alliance for Childhood, has elevated this issue, and though we have wondered if it was premature to proclaim a nationwide crisis without more research, we agree that this subject demands more attention, more research and more thoughtful approaches for educators and policymakers to consider.
So what do we do about it? Translating these important ideas into policy is tricky but hugely important. Achievement gaps continue to plague American education. Research from over several decades has shown us that the way to close those gaps is to first make sure that children arrive at school with some emergent literacy skills and then provide them with language-rich, high-quality environments throughout their early years of elementary school.
The Alliance blames testing and overly scripted curricula. We agree that standardized testing has no place in kindergarten and that teachers need to be given some flexibility in how and what they teach. But well-designed, developmentally appropriate curricula are associated with strong early childhood programs and can be a boon to teachers in providing a framework for how to approach their classrooms. And assessments are important - not standardized tests, but developmentally appropriate assessments based on yearlong observations of how children are learning and where they are having trouble.
As Early Ed Watch joins with others in looking for better approaches for kindergarten, here two possible antidotes that we believe deserve a closer look:
"Tools of the Mind" Project and other strategies that marry play with language development
Envision a classroom in which children are pretending to work at a hospital. "I'll be the doctor!" says one child. "I'll be the patient!" says another. The teacher, gently guiding the play, announces, "Hmm, does anyone want to work in the emergency room lobby, writing down the names of who is arriving and taking their temperature? You do? Great!"
In play scenarios like this, children learn to take on the roles of others, practicing what it is like to have to control over their own impulses and stay ‘in character.' They are also getting opportunities to absorb new literacy, math and language skills. And they are playing in open-ended ways, giving their imaginations a workout and feeling a sense of accomplishment at having practiced what it means to be more grown up.
This is a snapshot of what is possible under the "Tools of the Mind" Project led by Elena Bodrova, a senior research fellow for the National Institute for Early Education Research, and Deborah J. Leong, a professor of psychology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. Their project, which provides guidance for teaching strategies that are currently employed in dozens of pre-k and kindergarten settings, has been studied by Adele Diamond, a cognitive scientist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote an article in Science about its success in improving children's executive function skills. A 2008 study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly also showed benefits of the program. The evidence for gains in language development was not readily apparent; the data pointed in a positive direction but was not statistically significant. But there was a strong connection between the program and fewer behavior problems in school.
In the past few months, "Tools of the Mind" has received significant national attention, including a piece by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal and a segment by Alix Spiegel on National Public Radio. The New Brunswick Sentinel, a local newspaper in New Jersey, recently reported on how the program is being applied in a kindergarten classroom at Parsons Elementary School in North Brunswick.
The recently released 3rd edition of "Developmentally Appropriate Practice," from NAEYC
The National Association for the Education of Young Children has recently published the third edition of its guide, "Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs," edited by Carol Copple, the association's director of publications and initiatives in educational practice, and Sue Bredekamp, an early childhood consultant in Washington, D.C. They have also created videocasts that can be viewed online.
For the first time, the book includes a full chapter on "The Kindergarten Year," written by Heather Biggar Tomlinson. It makes a strong case for kindergarten as a "critical year" for supporting -- or undermining -- children's enthusiasm for and engagement in learning. Tomlinson's chapter zooms in on the latest research in three areas of development: physical, social-emotional and cognitive, providing context for what children's brains, bodies and emotions are developmentally prepared to handle and primed to absorb.
Among its many recommendations, the chapter suggests that teachers encourage children to think and reflect by asking them questions ("I wonder how many blocks it would take to cover this rug?") and giving them time to answer. It also points out that play is a "crucial vehicle" for building and practicing self-regulation skills, urging teachers to make sure that children have ample opportunity, materials and encouragement to engage in dramatic play, such as make-believe play and play with made-up rules."
The book is a must-have guide for early childhood educators, as well as much-needed resource that brings together the latest thinking about how to best support not only children's cognitive development, but their physical, social and emotional development as well.
Kindergarteners are not just third-graders in size 6x clothes. And it is not automatically obvious to teachers -- particularly if they have been simply moved from, say, 3rd grade down to kindergarten -- how to teach academic content in harmony with a child's stage of development. That's why good teaching strategies and good resources for professional development are so important. At Early Ed Watch we'll be seeking out more examples of good practice over the coming months and diving into further research on developmentally appropriate practice and what it means in PreK-3rd schools. Please feel free to post additional ideas or forward new research or ideas for policies that we should be considering.
Photo from Flickr user WoodleyWonderWorks under Creative Commons license.