It’s Friday morning as I begin to type this. I’m sitting on my porch, watching my children play outside. My 5 year old son is doing an “experiment” as he calls it, with funnels, sand, and a small wheelbarrow. My 18 month old daughter is running about, sampling the flora and mineral varieties that our lawn and driveway have to offer, and playing in her own toddler way. Everyone is happy. The wind is blowing, but it’s warm enough to be outside without a jacket.
My son usually spends his mornings in his Pre-K classroom, but no longer. Today we officially withdrew him from school. This was not an easy decision for us to make, but it became more and more clear that he was not benefiting from being at school every day.
In the beginning, he loved it. He made friends quickly and was eager to enter the classroom. There have been moments over the past few months, when our son has “gotten into trouble.” There was the my food is healthier than your food conversation that got out of hand during lunchtime one day and resulted in a phone call home. There was the book swiping incident that resulted in him being brought to the office and a phone call home to mom. And there was the I just want to be homeschooled conversation which is apparently taboo in the classroom arena and not fit for the ears of the other children. We worked through all of these issues like responsible parents in whatever way was deemed necessary by the particular situation. In general he was having fun.
It became a back and forth pull between him loving and hating school. But as time went on, the time he spent complaining about school began to overshadow whatever good things he had to say about it. The struggle to get him ready in the morning went from the duration of the five minute timespan to get coats and shoes on, to an all morning battle from the moment he opened his eyes and asked, “Do I have to go to school today?” And then he started crying at the classroom door and trying to run away. Of course, he stopped as soon as I left, but it started to wear on me. After school, he was tired and the smallest thing would set him off and another battle would ensue. This was not fun and this was not how I imagined my time with my 4-5 year old would be spent. I started to think how unfair it was for the school to see him during his best hours, when all I got was tears. By then he rarely had a positive word for school. He did nothing but complain about going. We were ready to withdraw him and we told his teacher this news. She suggested we try half-days. I was skeptical, but I thought I’ll try anything once, and my son also seemed keen to try this. It was better. There was less complaining and our afternoons together were fabulous.
Last week was the elementary spring concert. The kids were to sing folk songs and my son had been practicing one at home. I was told he would be on the left if I was facing the stage, so I took a seat in that area with his sister. The kids took the stage. Pre-K was in front, on the lowest riser. This was to be the event that confirmed what I already knew–that my son was not being well-served in Pre-K.
I’ll get back to the concert in just a bit. First I’d like to state some of the things I know, or at least things I think I know, or at the very least things the way I perceive them. My son is an outgoing and independent little boy. He is creative and articulate with a vocabulary for his age that would blow you away! He does “his paleontology work” with rocks he collects… and yes, his pronunciation and understanding of the word is flawless. He is naturally curious and wants to learn about all sorts of things: from what type of animal lived in the nautilus shell I’ve had since I was a child, to trying to understand why he (my son) “did not exist” 10 years ago when we lived in Buffalo. “Was the world still making me,” he asked? He is always asking questions… about everything. Some might label him as “difficult.” To be sure, he is a child that will question a given situation, and if he doesn’t like what he’s doing, he will certainly vocalize his feelings in that respect. He is high-energy and loves to play. He has trouble with transition and if he likes what he’s doing at the moment, he can become so engrossed in the activity that events around him become non-existent. He doesn’t hear when you say “five more minutes.” He doesn’t notice that the light is off to signal journal time. If he isn’t interested in doing a particular activity, he will rush through it. And if he feels forced he has been known to answer incorrectly or do it inappropriately on purpose. But when he is in love with what he’s doing, he is motivated and involved and will go great lengths to carry out his endeavor!
Here is what I perceive about his Pre-K classroom, in no particular order, and with minimal judgement intended directly at the school, his teacher, or the classroom experience at this point. His teacher is sweet and cares about him. I believe she was overwhelmed with the new Common Core State Standards she had to teach and that it clouded her vision and she added them to her curriculum in a less than inspired way. Pearson worksheets come home weekly. My son hates them. He is bored and I’ve heard other parents say that their children are bored as well. The children get free-play. They have a rotation of art, music, and gym. And they have recess at the end of each day. Besides art class, the results of which I’ve actually never seen, the children don’t do much art in the classroom. Occasionally I see a self-made crayon or pencil sketch that my son made himself, but mostly they just use the crayons to color in the Pearson pictures, or some other pre-made coloring book type drawing. They do this to build hand-strength for writing and pencil grip, and probably because it’s just easier and cleaner. It doesn’t seem like they do art for art’s sake. I overheard my son talking to my husband one night about why he wants to stay home. “We never get to paint in school,” he said. “We just color in those books.” To continue, the classroom is very structured. It is a small room and there are 20 children. There are 2 aids. I believe the overwhelming nature of adding Common Core to the classroom created a stressful situation in which the children were (more than usual) expected to comply and conform to the structure of the day. There didn’t seem to be much patience for those who disrupted it by… oh I don’t know… acting like normal children.
In the beginning we felt like our son’s “behaviors” were being noticed, while his many unique and positive characteristics were greatly undervalued. As the year progressed, we became satisfied that his teacher saw him more as an individual with a better understanding of what made him tick. But we were already afraid that he was being labeled as “difficult.” Of course, I understand the necessity for rules and structure in a classroom of twenty 4 and 5 year olds to avoid complete chaos. We never advocated that our son just be allowed to do as he wanted all the time. We always encouraged him to just try his best, even at the things he hated. I thought we did a good job communicating with his teacher. We thought it was important that we work together to try to find a way to encourage our son to find joy in school– to be respectful of his teachers and classmates while still maintaining his individuality. It was a compromise in some ways. We picked our battles. While we opted our son out of his computer-based STAR assessments, we never complained about the Pearson worksheets. While we allowed our son to eat pizza on Wednesdays, we weren’t about to have the school feed him breakfast and lunch just because that’s what was easiest for everyone else. While I respected the methods of discipline imposed in the classroom, I wasn’t about to make a big deal about my son’s excessive tally marks for talking to his neighbor. We took everything in stride. We were involved, yet not invasive.
But there is a tendency in a classroom environment for favor to be given to the children to are more inclined to sit still, “behave,” and do as they’re told without question. Children who have trouble with this, or are just not developmentally ready to sit still for long periods of time present a challenge, especially in such a young demographic. These children don’t necessarily have behavioral problems. They represent just one aspect of normal childhood development among their peers. These tend to be boys more often than girls. And sometimes, they become labeled as “trouble-makers,” “disruptors,” “bad,” etc. And if one is made to feel “bad” often enough they may just start to emulate that behavior and become bad. I am very concerned with what the ill-effects of labeling might be. (Read here, here, or here.) I always knew the moment I saw my son’s face if he had a bad day. And someone was always quick to jump in with a reason that often placed my son’s behavior as the reason for the bad day. Here’s one story I found troubling:
I picked my son up from school and could see immediately that he was upset. Another mother picking up her daughter from Pre-K could also tell by my son’s face that something was wrong. I asked him and he said somebody punched him in the nose. I thought, “Wow, I get a call when he tells his classmates that his lunch is healthier than theirs, but nobody lets me know that another child punched my son in the face.” I asked him who punched him and he said he couldn’t remember. I thought that was strange because he knows all of the kids in his class. I kept asking for details, but my son could not provide them. I wondered why. There was no one to ask at the moment, so the other mother suggested that I call as soon as I got home to inquire. That’s what I did. Before I could even explain why I was calling my son’s teacher said, “the aid said you might be calling and told me to tell you that your son was kicking some girls.” Apparently this all happened under the supervision of the aids and the teacher was not witness to any of it. The aid never mentioned my son being punched in the face. His teacher proceeded to explain what she had heard, that my son was upset that one of the girls was in his spot. As it turned out, he didn’t kick them in a beating sort of way but rather tried to slide the girl out of his spot with his foot. But still no explanation of punching or how punching might have fit into this story. I was starting to think that my son made up this story as a way to avoid dealing with his own behavior at school. I asked him more questions that he could not answer. And then I accused him of lying to me. Days later, the story came together from various sources and it became clear that my son was indeed punched in the nose by another boy for an unknown reason completely unrelated to the girl kicking incident. I learned from the mother of a girl in his class the name of the boy who had punched my son. I didn’t ask my son directly because I didn’t want to prompt him. So I asked him who he wanted to invite to his birthday party and then I started listing all of his classmates’ names. When I finally spoke the puncher’s name, my son responded immediately, “That’s the boy who punched me in the nose!” I asked his teacher again if she had gotten more of the story from the aid. No, it never came out. And I wonder why. When I picked my son up that day he was crying and his nose was red. Even if nobody witnessed it, didn’t they think to ask him what was wrong? And why did the aid tell the teacher to expect my call, but not tell her anything about my son being hurt? Was it really just because he exhibited bad behavior? My son never mentioned to me that he kicked anybody so why would I call about that? It isn’t the incident itself that bothers me the most. These things happen with 4 and 5 year olds. We talked to our son about how inappropriate it was to kick girls. But I falsely accused my own child of lying to me, when if fact he was telling the truth all along. Nobody could or would confirm his story and I believed them.
And there have been other incidents as well where I was informed that my son was misbehaving during free-play. I talked to two friends whose opinions I trust. One is a mother of 4 boys, so she’s been around the block a few times in terms of boy behaviors and personalities. The other is a sweet woman who provides daycare for several children in our town. My son goes there now and then to get away from mom and play with his friends. He loves it and he loves her! Anyway, they both have experience watching several of the boys in my son’s class and they both had the same insight. Often times, another child will instigate conflict in a way that goes unnoticed unless you’re a perceptive adult paying attention. They might take a toy away when they think no one is looking, or they might say or do just the right thing to annoy another child… usually a series of small details that builds up until a child like my son who is very vocal will express himself and perhaps even become angry. And that is what eventually calls attention to the conflict. The acts that went unnoticed do not attract any blame to the other children, but the loud vocal child is seen as the “problem.” Was this happening to my son?
Let’s get back to the spring concert. My daughter and I were sitting up near the front of the auditorium near where my son was standing. He was happy up on stage, laughing and smiling and doing a little dance or two. He was also distracted by us, gesturing to his sister, not so much singing the songs, but still… it wouldn’t be an elementary concert without the child standing there picking his nose, right? I didn’t mind that he wasn’t participating, but I thought to myself… if you have a child that is more inclined to be distracted from what he is supposed to be doing, why place him on the end like that? Oh well, he was having fun and it’s Pre-K… who cares if he isn’t singing along. Then his aid gave him a talking to. I don’t know what she said, and it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that his smiled faded and he just stood there. He began smiling again, singing a bit and then entertaining his sister. Then another talking to. Then back to having a good time. This happened three times, but eventually he began having fun again. But after the fourth talking to, I watched my son turn to the outside of the row of children, hang his head, put his hands in his pockets and just stand there despondently. From my perspective as a parent, I had just witnessed my son’s spirit being completely crushed. And why? Because he wasn’t singing and doing the proper gestures like the rest of the Pre-K children? Whatever was said to my son did not help the situation… it made it worse. I saw my son on the fringe, both physically and figuratively, and I didn’t like it. I wondered, is it just my son who isn’t singing? I looked around at the entire Pre-K class, as well as the rows of other children in kindergarten and first grade.
Perhaps you think I am overreacting, but what I saw was my son’s future in school. In each grade, the children at the center of the stage were singing and performing. These were the “good” kids. On the sides of each row where the fringe children, mostly boys, not singing, just standing there. You always have children who are less inclined to participate for whatever reason. Why confirm the negative expectations of these children by consistently placing them on the fringe? Why not mix these kids up? Perhaps a child like my son would be less distracted and more inclined to participate in the activity if he were between two of the “good” kids. But this was not just a coincidence in my opinion. It was a pattern, and I could see my son’s future as I looked up through the rows of children and could foresee his placement in the years to come. I can’t allow my son to be a victim to negative assumptions about his behavior and ability. I pulled him out. I withdrew him.
But it isn’t even the outcome of the past few months that prompts me to write this. It is the false presumption that I am hearing that my son is not ready for school. What does that mean anyway? If it means that he is not ready to conform to an unnecessary mould at his age, then you are right. If it means that he is unable to transition from the fun, developmental necessity of play to boring Pearson worksheets, then you are right. If it means that he has no real desire to feign interest in coloring in someone else’s picture, then you are right. And if it means that he isn’t adhering to standards that will prepare him to be nothing more than an obedient rule-follower and good test-taker, then you are right. But it has been implied that my son is just not emotionally ready to go to school. And this is just not correct.
For the record, my son is self-confident and outgoing. He does not cry when I bring him to his babysitter; He rejoices. It is not separation anxiety, from which he does not suffer. And it is not shyness; He is not shy. For the record, there is nothing abnormal about his behavior. He is a happy, energetic, high-energy 5 year old boy who doesn’t like to sit still for very long. For the record, I am proud to be raising an independent and curious child with a natural tendency to question the world around him. My son is an individual with many beautiful qualities that I wouldn’t change for the world. So when someone suggests that he is not ready for school, I only have this to say. For the record, school as it currently exists is not ready for my son.