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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Miss Sassypants and the Kindergarten Saga

Miss Sassypants is five. She's a little slip of a girl with blond hair and a fabulously gravely voice. Imagine a sultry lounge-singer but dress her in bright green frog-faced rain boots and shorts on an 85 degree day, put her on a tricycle zooming around the central planter in a cul-de-sac, and you'll have a pretty good idea of Miss Sassypants.

Miss Sassypants, like most 5 year olds, has a mother. One who happens to be my friend. Let's call her Nadia Raniscu. That's not even remotely her name, though it's an anagram that includes all but one of the letters of her first and last name. And it looks like it could be a real name. (Yes, I'm bored by the 149th airing of the Maisy train episode right now...) Anyhoo, Nadia has a vexing problem:

Miss Sassypants, despite her many many excellent qualities, does not seem to be thriving in kindergarten this year.

This is particularly frustrating for Nadia because she agonized over whether to start Miss Sassypants in kindergarten this year at all. The cut-off here for starting kindergarten is that you have to be five by Dec 1. A few years ago, Nadia's older daughter turned five. Her birthday falls near Halloween, so she technically made the cut, but there was no question in Nadia's mind that she was simply not ready socially for school. So Nadia did what many parents here do for their kids with late-fall birthdays: she kept Soccer Girl in a pre-K program for another year. Soccer Girl, is now doing extremely well and loving school. Several years on, it's clear that this wait was perfect for her.

All last summer, Nadia debated whether Miss Sassypants should wait it out just like her older sister had done. It worked out so well for Soccer Girl that Nadia felt it was a kind of gift -- she'd been given an extra year of play, months to mature, time to grow into a child who could both focus on school and be socially successful. In the end, though, Nadia did not hold back Miss Sassypants. Because her birthday is in AUGUST, and she's a little chatterbox, and as the younger sister, she's spent her whole life playing with older kids, and as the Sassy younger sister, she's been keeping up just fine. Socially, it seemed clear that Miss Sassypants was more than ready for kindergarten.

But now, Nadia is getting The Phonecalls. You know, the ones from the teachers who say unpleasant things couched in pleasantries. Things like, "Miss Sassypants has so much energy that she has a very hard time sitting still in class" and "Miss Sassypants is so creative that she doesn't seem to want to concentrate on writing her letters." In other words, she's a sassy little bundle of energy who would much rather play than work at all this kindergarten stuff. Sassy herself asked, in a tone of despair, not too long ago: "Do you get to play more in first grade than in kindergarten?" Which nearly broke Nadia's heart.

So now she wonders. Would Miss Sassypants be emotionally scarred by becoming a kindergarten dropout? We laughed and laughed over this together at lunch a few weeks ago. Laughed at the ridiculousness of the phrase "kindergarten dropout." Such an absurdly gloomy phrase, as if pulling her out of kindergarten right now would destine Miss Sassypants to a life as a laundry-mat attendant. As if she'll be running around pregnant in froggie boots at age 16 having failed sufficiently to motivate and take her K-GED. Oh, wait, there's no GED for kindergarten. You just try again next year.

And that's what Nadia is contemplating. In some ways, it seems like the best solution. There's not so much bounce in those sassy little steps right now, and Miss Sass claims she's sick a lot. She dreads school. Which of course makes her behavior worse and increases both the frequency and the seriousness of The Phonecalls. Pulling her out now, perhaps moving her back to her playtime preschool, would certainly make her happier. It would, of course, scar Nadia, who feels guilty enough about having her start kindergarten this year. Because doesn't it make us feel like failures--as in, we've failed our children--when we encourage them to do something and they just can't and they are depressed by that fact?

Or maybe Miss Sassypants needs to stick it out for this year and see how things go? She can always repeat kindergarten if she seems to need more academic preparation for first grade. For that is what kindergarten is around here: academic preparation. The pressure is enormous. And I'm not joking. First grade is serious business. And if you're a sassy little gravely voiced mite who really just wants to run around on the playground with the bigger kids, you might turn out to be incredibly popular...but you might also struggle terribly with all the work stuff. And maybe a year of maturity might not grow the sass out (heavens, we hope not!), but it might make it easier to sit still.

And then Nadia wonders: Which is worse? Being a kindergarten dropout, or being a kindergarten repeater while all your friends get to move on to first grade? What would be easiest for Miss Sassypants to view as a hopeful change rather than a label of failure? And to what degree does a five-year-old only internalize such things if we suggest they are problems?

* * *
And no, "my friend Nadia" is not code for me. I wouldn't give Son the pseudonym Miss Sassypants, and Daughter is still is diapers. But I worry about these issues too. I agonize all the time over Son, who misses the birthday cutoff by six weeks, who is taller than all but one kid in his current preschool class, even though many of them are a year older than he is, and who seems like he might be incredibly bored waiting to start kindergarten till Fall 2009, since he already knows all his letters in upper and lower case and is trying to sound out words. On the other hand, socially, he can be quite shy, and I worry that being too pushy or contemplating starting him early for academic reasons might result in an introverted and unhappy little boy. HOW, how, how do you know what is right for your kids in this regard? How do you know when it's right for them to start school? Do you just follow the birthday cutoff rules? Or do you second-guess them? And how did that all work out for you? I really do want to know.


Robin said...

That's a tough situation. I would probably take her out and put her back in preschool...start Kindy next year.

Here (in Texas) the cutoff is September 1. I think it is interesting that yours is December 1. Most people here, if their child is anywhere near the cutoff, hold them back and start them the following year. This is especially true for boys because football is a big deal, and they would prefer their kid be bigger than everyone else rather than smaller.

My kids birthdays are late November and mid December, so fortunately, this isn't something I have to worry about. But if I were you, I would probably hold my son back. Do y'all have any "bridge" programs. Some of our preschools have them. They are designed specifically for kids who just miss the cutoff date or whose parents have decided to wait a year. So they are a little more advanced than preschool, but not quite kindy.

Michelle said...

It seems to me that parents are being WAY to hard on themselves. If the child wants to play more - than put her back into preschool. If you'd not tried kindergarten this year you could be beating yourself up for that instead. If a child wants to, they will always find something to blame on the parent - like why you wouldn't allow your 13 y/o girl date the 19 y/o "band dude" and how THIS is what totally messed up her life.

If doctors can say they're "practicing medicine" (i.e. they try things til they get it right) I don't think we can expect any more from parents than a good 'ole try. Sometimes you try and succeed, sometimes you try and fail. Bounce back from the failure instead of getting mired in it - that's what we should be teaching our kids by example.


Huckdoll said...

My brother was right on the cusp (b-day being November 11) and my Mom put him in early.

Worst mistake ever! He had the same comments and issues and the subject of this post. He did horribly throughout school and always felt like the baby and dumb kid in school because he was the youngest in every class. To add, he's had some social issues as an adult - I'm not sure if it's connected, but you never know.

Just wanted to share my experiences!

Take care!

LceeL said...

Kids are so different, one from another. What works for one won't necessarily work for the other. As a parent, you just have to know that you have done the best you know how for that particular child. Sometimes, doing the 'best you know how' means you've turned to outside resources to check your work. Talk to your Pediatrician. If necessary, talk to the Social Worker at school. Get advice from those people around you whose job it is to know and understand little boys and girls in that kind of environment. The 'away from home' environment. Don't think you have to make all of these decisions unaided. What you need is information, and there are people whose job it is to provide you with the kind of information you need to make an informed decision.

Don Mills Diva said...

I'll be really interested to hear the responses to this. My son is 2 and his birthday is in November which means he would start jr kindergarten at 3 which just seems absurdly early...

Judith Shakespeare said...

How do you know what's right?

You don't. That's the major glitch in the whole parenting bit. :)

My advice is to pull her out of kindergarten and start her again next year- give her a bit more time to develop her social/academic skills in an environment better suited to her level (Pre-K) rather than continue to make her be the square peg who just hasn't had time to round out enough to fit in that hole that is kindergarten, you know?

Be sure to keep us updated! And wish them good luck!

(And Nadia Raniscu is actually a pretty cool name come to think of it...)

OHmommy said...

My son was on the cut off date last year. We held him back. Now, he will be the oldest. He has grown soooo mcuh and now is eager EAGER to learn. I just want him to LOVE learning. You know? I am so happy with our decision.

MommyTime said...

All of you are so thoughtful in your responses, which I really appreciate. The thing that I know Nadia struggles with -- and me too when I think about my son -- is that in our generation, it was all about pushing kids forward. "My kid is really bright, start her early!" And now the reverse seems to be the trend -- "my kid seems to need more time to mature; give her time to play!" And, as Michelle, and Iceel, and Judith point out, it's so hard to know which of these is right. Circumstance does matter: I think there is far more pressure now in kindergarten to learn academic things than there used to be, which might explain the reluctance of parents to push their kids ahead.

I don't know why, Iceel, it never occurred to me to talk to my son's dr. about this -- but I certainly will now. That is great advice. It is true that as parents we somehow think these decisions are ours to get indelibly right or wrongm when really we can ask for guidance in this. And, like Michelle and Judith say, we can't always beat ourselves up about it.

Robin: some preschools have an "older fives" class or something like that for kids who just miss the cutoff. Something like that might be best. Thanks for the good thought.

DMD and OhMommy and Huckdoll are all describing versions of the same scenario: kids on the cusp who, when pushed forward, might find it difficult. I think the bad type A overachiever in me needs to take a deep breath and realize that pushing all the time can be detrimental. :)

Thanks so much to you all for giving me so much to think about.

joshenry said...

I can very much relate to what your friend Nadia is going through. Our youngest son has an early November birthday and we agonized over whether or not to send him to Kindergarten. We weren't really impressed with the progress he was making in preschool. He was at a Montessori- way too much choice for our guy and there seemed to be no one pushing him to grow.
He is on the larger side (was a 10 1/2 pounder at birth)- solid and tall. Socially, we thought he was ready- he makes friends easily. In the end, we sent him to Kinder. and hoped for the best. A month into it, teacher expressed her concern. He, too, (just like Sassypants)wants to play instead of finish his work. He doesn't like to write his letters and numbers. He sometimes tells me he wants to stay home. "It's too hard!" This breaks my heart.
We get calls and notes on a regular basis from his teacher (who we really do love but are a bit annoyed with right now)expressing her concern over his level of maturity. Our son will probably repeat Kinder. next year and that's ok with us. We took a shot, and it didn't work out perfectly. He isn't able to finish tasks like most kids in his class. So what! He's 5!!! Kindergarten is quite different than it used to be. Schools continue to up the anti and challenge our little ones with more difficult curriculum. I don't like it, but that's the reality.
Our little guy has grown sooooo much this year, in so many ways. I can't imagine pulling him out midyear. Even though he'd like to stay home most days, he'd wonder why he's not a part of his class anymore. If I had to do it over again, I'd hold him back. Everyone in "the know" agrees that you'll never regret it, especially given the new expectations of Kindergarten. If you have a good preschool that focuses on academics, then you're in good shape. Ours didn't, and we took a shot.
Sorry for the long and rambling comments. Just some food for thought!

MommyTime said...

Joshenry, this is so helpful. I love to know from people in the know that the repeating and the waiting are really good things to do. (Because you're too modest to say, I'll add for everyone else's benefit that Joshenry teaches elementary school, fabulously, and knows from whence she speaks!) I will pass along your words of wisdom to Nadia too -- which I'm sure will make her feel much better. Thank you so much.

MultiplesMommy said...

I'm already battling with this regarding the twins. Our cut off here is Aug 31, and they were born Sept 1. It is possible, though difficult, to "test in" to kindergarten here. Big Sis was soooo ready for school that I've always assumed the twins will be the same, and will be bored silly by an extra year of preschool. But I'm not so sure. I'm going to wait and play it by ear, and see where we end up when they're 5. We can always do private school if they really ARE ready. But as someone who was always the youngest in her class growing up, I know what it's like to deal with that...and it's not always fun! The added problem is that I won't send one to school and keep the other home--I don't think that's good for the ego--so they BOTH have to be ready for kindergarten at the same time.

angie said...

My sister had to deal with this issue with her last 2 children, Ellie who was born at the end of August and Jack born in mid-October. She talked with the kid's preschool teachers. They highly recommended Kindergarten for Ellie and I think recommended waiting a year for Jack. They had different skills and different personalities. Plus, I do buy the give an extra year for sports/physical development for boys. I know that sounds horrible. And you know I am a feminist. But I think boys do get made fun of if they are way small (which obviously isn't your issue). I was the oldest in my class and I loved it. I think there should be no hurry getting our kids in school. They have only a small time to be kids and play, play, play and we shouldn't rush it. I think a year of maturity will only help them. And I think it can hurt kids to send them off too soon. If they are exceedingly brilliant and very social (like my darling Ellie) then i think it will be an obvious decision. If you are tossing it over and over and over then I think that's a clue to wait.

Nate is a Feb birthday. Unless something changes radically, I imagine he will start kindergarten at 5.5. Some of that is because he's such a little guy and well, you know some of his other issues. But I can't imagine starting a 4.5 year old. Not when school is so much more stressful than when we were kids.

Hugs to "Nadia" I am sure her heart is very sad.

Tickled Pink Designs said...

I just found your blog and thought I'd give my 2 cents. I have a good friend who went through this last year with her son. She debated holding him back, he started, hated it and she pulled him and he went back to preschool for the remainder of the year. He is in Kinder now and is doing really well. Granted, he is a boy, but he was just SO miserable, and immediately became the happy kid we all love when she pulled him.
Also, I have never heard of a child who regretted being held back, but I have heard of kids who wish they had been held back.

MommyTime said...

Thanks so much, Angie and Tickled Pink, for your thoughtful input. I think you are both right that there are so many reasons that it's better to wait if it's not "obvious" that the child is ready to move forward. I have to pass all of this sage input on to Nadia. I really appreciate it.

And, Tickled Pink, thanks so much for coming by and commenting. Welcome!


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