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The ABCs of Kindergarten



MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO

As September looms, 5- and 6-year-olds are picking out backpacks and looking forward to their first days in elementary school. Their parents, if this is their first child in kindergarten, may be wrestling with a variety of emotions and expectations.

At first glance, kindergarten today seems a lot different than the one of a generation ago. That kindergarten was a steppingstone from a child’s play at home to the world of formal education. Finger painting, shoe-tying, making a friend or two, and mastering the ABCs were much of what was expected from 5- and 6 year-olds in the early 1970s.

Today, more children come to kindergarten with at least some experience with institutionalized learning—through universal pre-K, daycare and other formal programs. Kindergartners are now exposed to real academics, with sight words to learn, sentences to write and simple addition to practice.

What have these changes to kindergarten meant for the children? Local early-childhood- and elementary-education experts see the differences as positive. Sunita Singh, assistant professor of education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, says balancing the social and behavioral needs of very young children with the New York state curriculum requirements has not been easy, but better programs are emerging as a result.

“Kindergarten now stands at the interface of two fields: early childhood development and elementary education,” explains Singh, whose research areas include early childhood education, early literacy and teacher education. “Elementary education used to be K through sixth grade. But now, early childhood education prepares teachers to work with children from birth to second grade.”

Donna DeSiato, superintendent of the East Syracuse-Minoa Central School District, says research over the past 30 years on brain development in children ages 4 to 6 has helped educators address various stages of development. “We now know more about what helps the child to blossom,” she says. “And we know that children at this age are more capable than previously thought. Sure, there are more demands—but they are ready for it.”

New York state mandates academic goals for kindergarten. The Department of Education requires both preschool and kindergarten programs to ensure “continuity with instruction in the early elementary grades and is integrated with the instructional program in grades one through 12,” according to the Web site.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)—an organization devoted to education for children under age 8—has helped balance academic requirements and developmental appropriateness, local educators say.

Singh spent three years observing a kindergarten classroom. Her college students—future elementary educators themselves—are finding out how children learn through play; how classroom centers based on skills like letter sounds or writing can improve results; and the benefits of incorporating senses such as touch and hearing in lessons.

“The current research on these methods is encouraging,” Singh says. “The current thinking in the field of early childhood education is that children learn by interacting with their world. But the teacher is a powerful force in helping students to build confidence and make social and cultural connections.”

“We (as teachers) need to build (children’s) background knowledge in five content areas: math, science, social studies, language arts and technology,” Singh says. “We have to introduce these concepts in different ways so they can internalize the information and make connections that they can relate to.”

Judy Morgan, executive director of curriculum, instruction and accountability for the East Syracuse-Minoa Central School District, says kindergarten teachers are perhaps the most rigorously prepared and creatively advanced educators in any elementary building. “A kindergarten teacher today is not a playtime supervisor,” she says. “They truly are facilitators of learning. The knowledge they have to have about brain development, emotional development and socialization is amazing.”

Balancing learning and play

Local educators dispute recent reports that play is disappearing from kindergarten. (A congressional hearing was assembled in May to explore the issue.) Kim Epolito, a kindergarten teacher in the East Syracuse-Minoa Central School District, has taught at the kindergarten level for many of her 21 years in the profession. She emphasizes “choice time”—self-directed play—in her classroom.

“There are many materials available to teachers today that encourage play-based learning at appropriate developmental levels,” Morgan says. “In essence, the classroom becomes an interactive playground for learning.”

Full-day kindergarten programs are the norm, but not yet mandated, in New York state. Singh, of Le Moyne, says while the academic requirements are the same for both half- and full-day programs, full-day kindergarten is better. The longer days enable teachers to devote more time to individual students and incorporate research-based practices.

“Full-day kindergarten is actually a benefit to students,” asserts Singh. “As a teacher, you can spread the lessons out over more time.”

Anne Wright, a kindergarten teacher at Lakeshore Elementary School in North Syracuse, admits that in a half-day program, such as the one offered in the Cicero-North Syracuse Central School District, balancing play with the state academic requirements is challenging.

“You have to be creative,” she says. “For example, we do lots of singing and creative movement when learning letters and their sounds. When learning about positional words in math, I take the kids out onto the playground and we explore the concepts while using the playground equipment.”

DeSiato says a specialized approach to kindergarten education engages children’s’ natural curiosity. “Their whole day is designed to help them better understand the world around them.”

Preschool’s role

Preschool is many children’s first experience of structured learning. Programs differ widely. The Bernice M. Wright Child Development Laboratory School (BMW) at Syracuse University offers a half-day preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Director Daria Webber says the program is designed to encourage self-directed learning.

The program is accredited by the NAEYC but does not have a prescribed curriculum. “Our teachers listen to what the children are talking about, and they integrate learning—whether it is counting or colors, developing fine motor skills,” Webber says. “We chose to use a play-based approach because it is how children learn naturally. Our teachers are the facilitators of the learning, but it is presented in a way that inspires curiosity. We encourage children to explore their natural interests.”

There is no “writing time” or formal individual reading practice at BMW. But a variety of activities are available to children every day. They are also introduced to structure with a daily morning meeting and “circle time.”

“It’s very thoughtful planning, although it may not look like it to the children,” Webber says. “We provide different activities and observe the children to see what they are doing and what they are getting out of it. We can see if they are ready for an activity that can challenge them to take a specific skill a step further.”

“There is such a focus on kindergarten readiness and there has been a ‘push-down’ on the kindergarten curriculum,” Webber continues. “But it’s not our job to get children ready for the next level. Our teachers get to know the children and work with them where they are. It’s not about pushing them to do things; it’s respecting children individually.”

Morgan, curriculum director at ESM, says many families use the district’s own pre-K program at Park Hill School. “An average of 75 percent to 90 percent of ESM students go to our pre-K program. So kindergarten teachers can build on what they know the children have done before they get to kindergarten. That continuity only helps in the adjustment when the students come to the elementary school.”

In 2003, ESM superintendent DeSiato published her findings from a study on the academic benefits of full- and half-day preschool. She found that students who had more exposure to preschool programs were better prepared for kindergarten; those who attended full-day programs as 3- and 4-year-olds benefited the most.

Sending a child to preschool can also help parents discover whether he or she is ready for kindergarten or needs another year to mature. But DeSiato says she usually encourages parents to resist the urge to keep their 5-year-olds home.

“I’m not a big fan of ‘redshirting,’” DeSiato says. “By the time these children get to second grade, there is often no difference developmentally. In fact, I tell parents that keeping children home doesn’t help them to mature; exposure to older children does. Waiting may actually hinder development at that age.”

Kindergarten as milestone

Whether a child attends preschool or not, there are social and emotional growing pains that are simply part of the territory for 5- and 6-year-olds. Local school districts devote significant time and resources to kindergarten orientations and encourage parents to become integrated into the school community months before the big day. But it seems there will always be an element of transition associated with kindergarten.

Many 5- and 6-year-olds face all kinds of fresh experiences, from riding the bus to eating lunch with a large group to spending time around older children in the elementary building.

“They are extremely busy just getting used to the newness of it all for the first few weeks,” says kindergarten teacher Epolito. “We encourage parents to send in healthy snacks, and for the first few months, the children do have a rest period. And they need it. I put on some relaxing music, and the children just get used to being calm and relaxing together.”

Parents can ease the transition by making sure children are well rested, well fed and able to talk honestly about their feelings. Educators also suggest that parents keep their expectations realistic.

There can be vast differences between students in any kindergarten class. “As a teacher you have to take the kids as they are when they come in,” Epolito says. “We have to teach the curriculum, and I feel, with the resources available to us and with the help of support staff, we do. Everyone has success. We may measure it differently in different students, but when I think of my students who finished kindergarten (last) spring, I feel like they all did their very best.”

Wright, the Lakeshore Elementary teacher, says most parents are not as concerned about coursework as they are about the well-being of their kindergartners. “The parents want to know that their children are safe and happy. Quite frankly this is our priority as well,” she says. “Once a child has reached this level of comfort, only then are they free to use their minds and energy to focus on all the wonderful and exciting things that will be introduced to them. At this point the world is their oyster.”

Starting right

Parents who want to help their children get off to a good start in elementary school should plan on spending some time there themselves, Singh recommends. Frequent communication between parents and teachers promotes a sense
of continuity between the child’s home and school environments.

“That is very crucial,” Singh says. “Children love to see that their parents are interested in what is happening at school. And establishing communication with teachers early on makes it easier for parents to reinforce classroom learning through everyday activities.”

Epolito says she tries to establish a rapport with the parents as early in the school year as possible. “The more I get to know the families, the more I can help the students,” she says.

Learning centers allow kindergarteners to practice specific skills. The centers, common in kindergarten classrooms, demand more adults in the room to supervise children in small groups. Parents are often recruited to help.

“The centers are important because they offer the opportunity for on-level instruction for all students—no matter where they are developmentally,” Epolito says. “By working closely with the teachers or parents leading the center, individual strengths can be emphasized. All students have a lot to offer, no matter where they are developmentally.”

“Times are changing for everyone. But the way children of kindergarten age learn has not changed,” Singh says. “This is a crucial period of time as we are pushing for research-based practices. For children, kindergarten is important because it sets the tone for future development and success in school later on. So, it’s in our best interest to make the effort.”

DeSiato is enthusiastic about the potential for kindergarten to develop children’s love of learning. “It’s not the child’s job to be ready for school. It’s our job to design school so that it is ready for the child.”                                                 


PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNICE M. WRIGHT




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