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Kindergarten should not merely establish a springboard for success in upper grades.
It is also the developmental foundation for mastery of content that is the focus of elementary, middle and high school.
More K-12 schools are emphasizing the noncognitive skills that students can access throughout their schooling and careers. There is good reason to make this investment. But just as recognition is growing that these skills matter, our youngest students are losing out on opportunities to practice and hone such skills.
As the white paper “Taking Back Kindergarten: Rethinking Rigor for Young Learners” discusses, a rigorous approach to kindergarten does not have to be at odds with developmentally appropriate education. Fusing academic and social development can create a remarkably rich kindergarten classroom. Rather than rows of students working quietly on practice worksheets or listening to the teacher speak, developmentally appropriate kindergarten classrooms are filled with children engaged in activities that match with their learning content.
Related: Full-day kindergarten is great for kids, so why isn’t it required?
Teachers may direct groups of students to different learning centers in the classroom to engage in meaningful projects. Some children will be assisting their peers, and all children will have the opportunity to play with ideas.
This type of project- and play-based educational experience in the early years serves as a catalyst for deep engagement, and fosters foundational learning for long-term success in school and life.
An emphasis on the natural ways that students engage with and understand the world can not only support every aspect of child development, but also ensure that kindergarten serves as a springboard toward better outcomes across the K-12 continuum.
The legacy of high-stakes testing and accountability looms large in kindergarten classrooms. While A Nation at Risk planted the seeds of change in 1983, No Child Left Behind-era accountability measures tended them in kindergarten policy and practice. Growing recognition of the important relationship between third-grade reading outcomes and high-school graduation rates encouraged an emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the earlier grades.
But decades of increased accountability measures now influence not just the things that kindergartners are learning but also the ways that they are taught — and even the amount of time that children spend on learning activities.
While it may seem prudent to dive directly into mathematics and literacy skill-building at the expense of other skills, students — and, later, employees — benefit more from a broad foundation of skills that also incorporates social and emotional elements. Such a strategy is akin to starting slow to go fast in the long run. And it works.
The shelf life of skills is shrinking. Today’s professionals are acutely aware that we can no longer expect to learn technical skills today for careers that will last a lifetime. The World Economic Forum reports that while some fields are growing and others are not, nearly all are changing.
As educators, we must adapt to ensure that our students graduate from high school not only prepared for college or careers, but also for a future in which the pace of change is accelerating. Today’s learners will need not just to navigate but embrace ambiguity. They will need not just to learn but to re-learn many times over the course of their careers. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Against that backdrop, today’s corporate leaders are beginning to embrace the importance of social-emotional skills in the workplace. It’s a shift that comes as no surprise to educators who have long known that skills like agency, collaboration and critical thinking — now ascendant in the world of work — are the gateways to academic success and deeper learning. Before students can learn to read, they need to develop self-control and persistence. Before they can solve complex mathematical problems, they need to develop confidence and self-regulation.
The most recent federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), attempts to provide states and school districts with the flexibility to expand classroom focus to the “whole child,” which opens the door to correcting the well-intentioned, but ill-conceived, move toward the over-academicization of kindergarten.
Related: Making the preschool magic last as children get older
For school districts, ESSA creates an opportunity to elevate the critical importance of early learning by building on what we know to be best practice. It is not only possible but incumbent upon schools to deliver developmentally appropriate and deeply rigorous learning experiences to kindergarteners.
ESSA supports more effective practices in kindergarten by opening the door for educators to employ observation-based assessments, and other strategies for refocusing interactions between teachers and children to those that are play-based, interdisciplinary and worthwhile.
Schools and districts can take a balanced and rigorous approach to early literacy and mathematics with experiences that tap into kindergarteners’ natural curiosity and excitement, to ignite passion and inspire deeper learning.
Equally important, such an approach will equip students with essential skills that lead to lifelong success. These skills don’t have a limited shelf life. We will take back kindergarten — and, in doing so, we will be serving kindergarteners well.
This story about rigorous and developmentally appropriate kindergarten was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Sandra Husk, a former schools superintendent, is the CEO of AVID Center. She contributed the foreword to the white paper “Taking Back Kindergarten: Rethinking Rigor for Young Learners.”
Sarah Silverman, a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors, is the author of the white paper “Taking Back Kindergarten: Rethinking Rigor for Young Learners.”
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