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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kindergarten is Not “Zero-th Grade”

By Roy Benaroch, MD

I’m a Gen Xer, born in the 1960s. Kindergarten for me was a time for playing duck-duck-goose, learning to take turns and trying to remember to raise your hand before you spoke. There were no expectations for academics—we were read to, but were not expected to read. Our math experience was very basic. Science? Social studies? No. Really, the whole year was devoted to social skills and manners. The very term, “Kindergarten” literally means “children’s garden,” a place for nurturing and growing. That’s why, historically, kindergarten isn’t considered “zero-th grade.” It hasn’t really been considered a part of academic schooling. Now, though, the pendulum in the United States has really swung towards more academics at an earlier age. Is that a good idea?

In my practice, I don’t see many children who haven’t learned the academic basics. The reading, writing and ‘rithmatic gets taught and learned. Some kids pick it up earlier than others, but by the middle of elementary school almost all children are caught up. But how many people have you met who’ve failed to learn more fundamental skills about being a good person? Manners, self-respect and respect for others are crucial skills in a civilized society. If an entire year of childhood could be spent learning the simple lesson “do unto others as you wish others to do unto you,” it would be a year well spent.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Kids can learn academics and citizenship at the same time. If your toddler is interested in learning things like the names of letters or the sound a pig makes, those are great things to practice and play games with. I would never tell a parent to discourage learning of any kind. But don’t feel pressured by neighbors who have a bigger stack of flash-cards than you, or by the three-year-old who knows all of the state capitals.

Studies have shown that the advantages of early academics are very limited, except in low socio-economic groups where parents themselves are poorly educated and may lack the skills to teach their children well. In other words, those three-year-old kids who already know all of the “school readiness” things will end up at just about the same academic level as the less “well prepared” children by the time they’re ready for first grade, when the “real schooling” traditionally has begun.

It is harder to brag about a kindergartener who knows how to shake a hand and look someone in the eye than one who already knows all of the letter sounds. But by the end of first grade, both kids will probably be at the same reading level anyway. In the long run, a foundation in good social skills and good character is far more important than an early jump on academics. Let’s encourage kindergartens that really nurture and grow our children rather than turning them into little professors too soon.

How do you feel about more rigorous kindergartens? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in the WebMD Parenting Community.

Posted by: Roy Benaroch, MD, FAAP at 2:59 pm

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