This post originally was published in October 2013.
Preschool is generally seen as a given for four and five year old children. Some programs are heavy on the academics emphasizing worksheets and pre-reading skills. Others follow the traditional nursery school method of learning through play. Many are half day programs though full day ones exist to help working parents.
My Youngest Son’s Preschool Experience
This week I pulled my youngest son out of the full day preschool program he was attending at my children’s Catholic elementary school. We had gone through over a week of daily meltdowns at school with my picking him up early 3 times because his meltdowns were disrupting class.
When my now 9 year old attended the preschool, it was a 3-day half day program with a different teacher in charge. My now 8 year old attended preschool as a 5-day full day program with the current teacher. During my daughter’s time, the preschool program became more rigorous academically picking up activities normally done at the Kindergarten level thanks to the integration of the new Core Curriculum standards in the school’s overall academic program.
What’s the Goal of Preschool?
Over the past 5 years, I’ve seen a growing emphasis on academic skills in preschool at our school. Kids are required to write their names on their papers from the first day of school. They bring home 4 to 5 papers daily. If each paper uses about 15 to 20 minutes of class time, that’s an hour of daily academics, at least. Not to mention, the kids have handwriting books for learning how to write letters. For homework over a week’s time, they practice writing their name 5 times, practice writing the letter of the week 5 times, and find pictures with the letter sound of the week.
The class size is large. There are usually 28 to 32 kids in the preschool classroom each year with 2 aides to help the teacher. The classroom activities are structured around everyone participating in the same activity at the same time. I’ve never heard of the kids receiving instruction in smaller groups like they do in the Kindergarten classroom. There simply is no time in the schedule for this type of instruction.
As I’ve worked through my youngest son’s issue at school, I’ve come to realize our school’s preschool program has lost sight of the primary mode of learning for 4 and 5 year olds – play. Children are hands-on learners from the get-go. Babies stick things in their mouths because taste is the strongest sense from birth. Young ones love the process of playing with playdough, finger painting, and messing around with mud. In Montessori classrooms, children use tactile exercises to practice their letters and strengthen their writing hand. They gravitate towards the practical life exercises like polishing and cleaning because they want to imitate the physical activities of their parents at home.
A full day preschool program focused on academics can work for a lot of kids. My 8 year old and 6 year old both did well with the program. However, they have different temperaments than my youngest son. He’s shy with strangers and slow to warm up to new situations. Once he’s comfortable with you, he’s very comfortable; he just needs time to reach that comfort level.
Finding a Preschool Model That Fits the Individual Child
To be honest, I kept trying to get my son to go to preschool for over a week. I’m not sure what precipitated the meltdowns other than finding the program and the full day just too much for him. The last straw for me was a phone call from his preschool teacher. She was clearly frustrated and felt she had done all she could. Yet, I felt like she wasn’t willing to find a way to work with my son unless she had an IEP. She even suggested having someone from our Intermediate Unit come in and observe my son. I could feel her pigeon-holing him as a difficult child, one who might have developmental issues.
I took my son out of the preschool, and on a whim called a local nursery school at a church. I knew other moms who had sent their children there. The nursery school let us come in and visit that day. The teachers were quiet, nice, friendly. The place felt warm and friendly. My son was apprehensive and then warmed up as the other kids welcomed him. I chatted with the teacher and discovered their program focused more on play and hands-on learning instead of worksheets. It didn’t matter if my son didn’t want to write his name; he didn’t have to until he was ready.
When I took my son for his first day on Wednesday, he didn’t want to go in. The teacher immediately said I could come in for an hour for the first day to be with my son. At first my son stayed curled up in his chair. Then, slowly he started participating in the activities. He was apprehensive when I left after an hour; I worried I would get the phone call. Yet, when I picked my son up, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Mom, I listened in school.” He had relaxed enough to do a very simple sheet with no name on it. He had met the Music Teacher and ate goldfish as a snack.
Every child is different and unique. While most kids can fit into a full-day preschool program, others need a shorter program with lots of time to play and be wiggly worms. Some kids go willing away from their moms, and others need to slow let out the string between themselves and their mom. Some kids dive right in; others need to know what to expect.
We Never Stop Learning from Our Kids
Despite having 5 kids and 17 years of parenting experience, I am learning again to focus on my child and his needs. I know my child best. He doesn’t have any issues. He’s simply a child who needs lots of re-assurance and support. A child who needs a gradual movement away from his mother, not an abrupt one. A creative, fun child who needs to hang back and observe before jumping in. In some ways, he’s like me.