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Commentary: You have to start from where the kids are

In a very small study reported by the New York Times on June 9, 24 kindergarteners either were able to focus on a multiple choice test about nonfiction, scientific topics in a stimulating environment or not. Some did better in a room that was virtually devoid of decorations.

As the Sunday comics sometimes say, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Quite possibly, the same thing that is wrong with the recent repetition of cafeteria workers throwing food in the garbage when student lunch accounts were in the red.

Human development across the lifetime has been studied widely by top experts, including Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Freud. Chances are that if you took courses in social work, education, psychology; if you volunteer as a coach or a Scout leader; or if you are a parent, a nanny, or a babysitter, you already know this: that these two happenings are at odds with the needs and abilities of kindergarteners (five and six years of age and mostly unable to think in the abstract) and middle school and high school students (always growing and always hungry).

Sure, science is fun, but kindergarteners—many of whom can’t yet understand that the short, wider glass holds as much as the tall, thinner glass—would be better served by playing at a water table with cups and spoons. Generally, they can classify by one factor but not by several.

The concrete operational stage that Piaget identified doesn’t arrive until about age seven and lasts until about age eleven. In this age group, kids can understand ideas by just thinking about them, but even then, according to his work, they work their understandings out best with actual objects and not representations of them. In various cultures, kids go through Piaget’s stages in the same order, but the length of time they spend in any one stage may vary from culture to culture.

What amounted to a case study—with only 24 kindergarteners in one location—should be examined further before it is expanded. Even though the kids were listening to a picture book story and then answering multiple choice questions pictorially posed to them, they were listening for 6 or 7 minutes, the equivalent of one-eighth of a standard college lecture. And this without the ability to take notes or think abstractly about ideas about, for one, the solar system, to be followed by a test.

Better to clutter up the discovery table with three-dimensional models to handle, and to look at the stars that evening with mom and dad. Reading various stories with mom and dad has another effect, too. It has been shown to decrease bullying and increase empathy.

A New York Times article written by Elizabeth Weil in June, 2007, “When should a kid start kindergarten,” noted that in kindergarten classrooms, the birthday gap spans an entire year merely because of admissions guidelines. Not only that, the youngest students are sometimes sent by their parents to pre-school for an extra year or to a junior kindergarten. At age five, even one year makes a 20% difference in age. Weil notes that “redshirting,” -- the practice of keeping your child back purposely—can even create a difference of 25% in the class. Expectations that might be okay for the oldest in the class may set the others up for a struggle.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of OUTLIERS: The Story of Success, notes that even on the athletic field, doing better can depend on the month in any given year that students happen to be born. The oldest are bigger and developmentally ahead of their cohorts on the field, but that's not all. Because of their size and success, they are set for even bigger successes through competitions against other “good” teams.

And sure, cafeteria meals should be paid for on time, but families generally provide lunch for their kids either by paying for it to be served at school or by having them brown-bag it. That prompts an important question: Why would anyone deprive students of lunches that are not their own responsibility to purchase, without notice? This happened in two suburban Buffalo districts recently, and even though the students were fed later after all and the cafeteria workers are now being retrained, the story was so surprising, even offensive, that it made the local television news on more than one day.

Sometimes events are not what they seem to be about, but are really about something else. Both these events are about forcing an outcome that is not appropriate to the age of the kids involved. But being kid-friendly isn’t about overindulging them.

It’s about understanding that they—and we-- have to start from where they are.

Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Books column. She has trained teacher aides for the Buffalo schools for the Continuing Professional Studies office at SUNY Buffalo State College and supervised prospective language arts teachers at Daemen College. Currently, she teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College.
She is the author of COUSINS: A picture book for kids from 3-8. Contact Linda at writeratwork14226@yahoo.com.