My 5-Year-Old Hates School — Because We Are Pushing Kids Too Far, Too Fast

I remember my daughter’s first day of school like it was yesterday. She wore a Nella the Princess Knight shirt and silver tutu skirt with a small birthstone necklace and patent-leather shoes, and her nails were painted. Each little finger was topped with a pale shade of pink. But the most memorable thing about her appearance wasn’t on her body; it was on her face.  She sported a smile that stretched from ear to ear. I wasn’t surprised. My daughter is outgoing and social. She loves making new friends, and she adored pre-K. But now? Now my 5-year-old hates school because we are pushing kids too far, too fast.

I know this may be an unpopular opinion. The benefits of early childhood education are well-documented. But there are also dangers. I watched my daughter’s personality shift. She went from being fun-loving and charming to anxious. She is constantly worried she’ll say the wrong thing or give the wrong answer. She’s cautious and fearful when there’s no need to be, and her voice has been stifled.

When we work on sight words, she gets frustrated and places her head on the table. She literally shuts down.

But that’s not all. She’s begun dreading school. Our mornings have become painful. Some days, my daughter cries, while others, she feigns headaches, stomachaches and, well, any ache she believes will get her out of school.

Of course, there are innumerable problems with the American educational system. Schools are overcrowded and underfunded. Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and the standardized testing system is problematic at best. According to Teach Mag, students recite information but have little ability to apply it to their lives.

Welby Ings is a design professor at Auckland University of Technology and former K – 12 classroom teacher in New Zealand. There are many problems with standard tests, which Ings calls “a very blunt and ineffective tool for understanding learning.” Not all students are affected by traditional assessments in the same way. They can hinder students differently, depending on how people learn, Ings tells SheKnows.

And this applies to specific subjects only. For example, in New York — where my daughter goes to school — writing, reading and common core math are the focus, while subjects like science and social studies are visited only once a week. But the biggest problem our little ones face isn’t on the page; it is on the playground.

Our children lack time for socialization, freedom, creativity and growth.

When I was in kindergarten, I learned my ABC’s and 123’s and how to play. We had nap time, snack time and story time. But my daughter? Her experience is much more academic. She spends hours sitting down studying, and then she comes home… and does several sheets of homework.

Of course, our story — and her experience — is not isolated. A working paper entitled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” confirms what many have suspected for years: The American kindergarten experience has become much more academic — and at the expense of play. Researchers at the University of Virginia, led by the education policy researcher Daphna Bassok, analyzed survey responses from American kindergarten teachers between 1998 and 2010. “Almost every dimension that we examined,” noted Bassok, “had major shifts over this period towards a heightened focus on academics, and particularly a heightened focus on literacy, and within literacy, a focus on more advanced skills than what had been taught before.”

According to Psychology Today, this strict academic focus is having damning effects; forced early instruction can produce long-term social and emotional harm. Take, for example, the German government-sponsored kindergarten comparison study in which grads from 50 schools that were based on play were compared with grads from 50 academics-based schools. What happened? By fourth grade, kids from the more academic, direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based schools — on just about every academic measure. Oh, and they were less well-adjusted socially and emotionally, too.

So what does this mean? What can we, as parents, do? We can advocate for our kids and push for reform in schools, for one thing. That means better and more individualized programming, and allowing teachers to do their job — teach — rather than forcing them to become data-obsessed test-drivers. Meanwhile, we can also provide our kids with as much relaxed, pressure-free time and space to grow and learn and create at their own speed at home. Because if kids feel like their speed, their needs, and their minds are truly valuable? Then there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.

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