Lessons Learned in Kindergarten

My son started kindergarten this year. The first week he resisted it--kicking and squirming with all his strength in my arms as I placed him inside the door. Towards the end of the second week, I looked at him from behind the chain link fence where the parents stand, as he reluctantly, but obediently stood in line waiting, looking small against the dusty rose wall of the large city school. The other children excitedly waved to their parents across the asphalt, while Leif fixed his accusative eyes on me without making a gesture. The waiting parents took note of his compliance, saying hopefully, "Look, he's going in by himself today." I watched long enough to see his body swallowed up into the classroom and then the heavy, institutional door clicked shut.

What happens behind that door is a mystery to me. Leif will only occasionally reveal the details in spurts here and there--usually whispered in the darkness of his bedroom before he goes to sleep at night. His school life is a part of him that I don't really know and will never know well. The person that develops there among his peers and teachers will be separate from the one I know at home. My only part in this is selecting the school--and being vigilant.

The man who created kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, produced developmental toys which would teach children certain concepts. He referred to these toys as "gifts." There are twenty progressive toys, but only the first five were published in Froebel's lifetime. From brightly colored yarn balls to wooden blocks, the first five represent the exploration of solids, graduating step by step in complexity: color, shape, number, extent, and symmetry. Searching for a good pre-school the year before Leif entered kindergarten, I hunted for a more modern descendent to these nineteenth century ideas and turned to another scientist, Maria Montessori. With Montessori, I was attracted to the toys that taught children abstract ideas in a concrete manner. Simple and well designed, they are a stark contrast to the usual plastic electronic fare offered up by the corporate toy stores. It made so much sense.

In the fall of the year before kindergarten I enrolled Leif in a Montessori school.   Although I had occasional short talks on the phone with his teacher, it wasn't until a sunny May afternoon eight months later that I arrived for the first official parent conference. Parent conferences at his previous school had been a breeze--a listing of his strengths and positive development. However, I soon saw by the look exchanged between his stiff and uneasy Montessori teachers that this conference would be different. They got to the point: Leif was not ready for kindergarten, certainly not in a public school. He won't sing in the music class; he won't respond during attendance; he doesn't engage with the developmental toys--only the computer, storybooks, and puzzles. The only time he comes into his own is during recess. They had evidence: a poorly-cut paper autumn leaf executed on the first day of school and a cut and paste ditto showing the sequence of how a flower grows--the seed was planted after the root growth.

Not one word of appreciation for him. Their dry, severe voices had nothing astonishing to report. And that seemed curious to me because there is so much that is wonderful about him--his strong sense of self, his ingenious play, his laughing blue eyes, the smear of freckles on his nose, the pure sunlight in his smile. After 8 months with him, they would know these qualities well.


What I did understand from our talk was that he truly hated his school. He had told me this many times, but I hadn't listened. A hot, red feeling flooded every cell of my body. Why hadn't I listened?   How could I dismiss his aversion for this school as a difficult adjustment? Why hadn't I been more observant? How could I have left him to cope with a teacher who I now saw as sourly rigid? I should have seen what an abrasive fit it would be for him. I resolved to never let this happen again.

But there is actually a word for what the Montessori teachers were recommending for my square peg child. It's called redshirting. Boys with summer birthdays are held back for "an extra year of childhood." It's a common practice now; I had heard other parents saying that they planned to do this with their boys, but Leif had always seemed right on target to me. I consulted our neighbor, a kindergarten teacher, who strongly advised against retention. There is no research to support that it helps and these redshirted boys risk low self-esteem, poor attitudes toward school, and increased risk of becoming a high school dropout.

Leif started kindergarten in public school right on schedule, wearing a green shirt.

Over the summer, he had cut out shapes: monster masks, stay-out-of-his-room signs, and a red and green circular target for his arrows. I noticed that he preferred his left hand, but other than that, his fine motor skills seemed strong. With play-doh he created three-dimensional objects: coiled snakes and pinched roses.

The first week in kindergarten, I discovered that I had much to learn. There was homework, a lot of it: If you have nine coins that make up a dollar and one is a quarter, what are the rest of the coins? It was my job to sit with him to hear him read words and do worksheets. Having been a good student, myself, the idea of unfinished homework was abhorrent. My parenting values were cast aside as I found myself reduced to threats and other manipulative tactics to get the all the blank lines completed with his scrawled penciled answers. I could see why parents were tempted to retain their children--to circumvent the escalation of academics into kindergarten. Certainly this curriculum belonged in the first grade.

I also discovered that kindergarten students are graded--with numbers, 1 - 4. On his first report card, Leif's 4s were in math--his number concepts were exceptional. His 2s were behavior-related; sometimes he hid inside the plastic tunnel of the outdoor play structure and refused to come in from recess.


The strong point of Leif's school was that he would have the same teacher kindergarten through first grade. He had the opportunity to develop a deep relationship with her. And I had learned my lesson. Ever vigilant, I met with Ms. Ortega the first week of school, I volunteered in the classroom once a week, and I had frequent conversations with her after school. Leif began to say "good morning" during attendance and he learned to tell his teacher if he wanted more recess time, because sometimes she let him have it. He became engaged in his class work, developed friends, and seemed to truly enjoy school. His teacher seemed to understand him; she celebrated his eccentricities and allowed him to evolve in his own unique way.

Kindergarten was going well, but behind the scenes the school administration was busy shifting the working program around. When the changes where announced to the parents, we discovered that our children would lose Ms. Ortega to an added kindergarten class in the fall. It was as if the center was lost. The assurance I had that Leif would have a good first grade experience was now up in the air. But this time, I was ready to put up a fight to preserve the good relationship my son had developed with his teacher. I mounted a campaign to keep Ms. Ortega with the class. I wrote up a petition, had every family sign, and arranged a meeting with the school administration. I was inspired by stories of parents succeeding in struggles against massive school districts. But ultimately we lost because as the administrator said it didn't really matter what the parents wanted. This was public school.

The fifth Froebel gift is a collection of wooden blocks, an extension of the previous two. It contains a surprise: some of the cubes are made up of triangular blocks. Parts make up a whole; fractions are learned. Kindergarten has been an exercise of finding the right pieces that will fit together to make up a whole: the teacher, the environment, and the curriculum all in perfect balance with the temperament of the child. I succeeded in finding that equilibrium for my son in kindergarten and have to trust that by my being vigilant, it will happen again.