routines — further reflections

In Sunday’s New York Times magazine there was a letter to the editor that gave me pause:

Despite her admirable developmental perspective, Pamela Paul fails to consider the effect of a sociocultural context that utterly ignores the developmental needs of 3- to 5-year-olds. When small children are expected to sit still, follow a schedule, even learn the alphabet — when curiosity, movement and nonconformity earn a “frowny face” — why are we surprised that so many feel sad, guilty and unworthy? No other culture treats children this age as we do. No wonder so many American kids are unhappy.

This letter was in response to an article last week about whether or not preschoolers can be depressed. The original article was really thought-provoking (if we say that they can, will we overmedicate them?  is it depression or just a phase?  what, if anything, should we do for a depressed preschooler?  are we thinking it is something else — like special needs — when actually it is mental illness?).

But the letter — “When small children are expected to sit still, follow a schedule, even learn the alphabet” — gave me pause.  Right after writing my routines post, in which I advocated expecting children to sit still and follow a schedule (and even earn the alphabet), someone says that this is wrong, and harmful to children.  Maybe she’s right, and I’m wrong.

On the other hand, if you keep reading, she says “when curiosity, movement and nonconformity earn a “frowny face.””  I know that’s not true in my classroom.  Curiosity, movement, and nonconformity are treasured in my room.

And I think that there are good reasons for what I do in my class.  For one thing, the letter writer is presumably college-educated.  She is probably talking about kids from middle-income homes with college-educated parents.  And maybe those kids don’t need much in the way of academics in preschool.  Most of my students come from families in poverty, where few, if any, family members have been to college.  I do what I do to get my students to travel as far as possible so that when they go to kindergarten, they will have the skills and experiences and knowledge of children from middle-class families, and they will not be allowed to fall behind right from the start.

I’m tying myself into knots over this.  What do you all think?

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9 thoughts on “routines — further reflections

  1. i think people that write those things…usually aren’t preschool teachers…but also they don’t understand that kids CAN sit and learn….and when we are done with our work…we CAN play! I have my kids sit and learn…then we get up and dance…then we sit…then we play…off and on all day! Sitting for a few minutes to sing the alphabet or do something at the tables..is NOT depressing students.
    Maybe something at home…maybe parents arguing…maybe not enough attention..that could depress students…but not sitting.
    i am sorry..but i disagree with that..and I think your classroom is fine! Your kids always have a smile on thier face and they all seem to have so much fun! and as a preschool teacher we KNOW that you feed off the kids ..and follow thier moods for that individual day!

    phoeey on news reporters!

  2. I think early childhood educators walk a fine line with this issue. We want very much for children to have the opportunity to be children, playing, running, yelling, laughing – but we are also trying to help them move forward academically as quickly as possible.

    In our teacher workdays before school started we saw Marcia Tate. She has written books on brain based learning. I’m trying to keep in mind what she said about attention span. She told us that people’s attention spans are the length of their age. So my first graders have six-seven minute attention spans. (The bad news is that the attention span tops out at 20 minutes so I don’t have a 37 minute attention span. Sigh.)

    I’m trying this year to be sure that I give my students opportunities to move or talk to each other every six to seven minutes. It’s surprisingly hard for me.

    As Jenny said, I’m impressed by your reflection on this issue. Thanks for pushing me to reflect more on it as well.

  3. My reply could take forever, LOL. I agree with Jenny, that preschool educators walk a fine line.
    I tailor my lessons to what my individual classes need. If they are socially ready (can sit, line up, share, cooperate and keep their hands to themselves, for example), then we can be more academic. However if social growth is what is needed, then that is what we work on for quite awhile.
    My particular program is geared more for the social needs of a preschooler, but I also do plenty of academic. It is indeed a fine line.
    Children need to play, but given the academic rigors that await them in elementary school, they also need to learn some building blocks to those academics.

  4. It’s soooo complicated. Yes, kids from low income families may need more . The question is, more what? What I am seeing is that in the misguided attempt to push letters and numbers what is being neglected are the kinds of experiences that help build vocabularies and an understanding of the world; science and social studies if you will. I’m reminded of the child I tutored from a very chaotic and disfunctional family. In first grade he could read books on a third or fourth grade level. It was really impressive until I figured out that he really didn’t understand much of what he was reading because he didn’t know what the words meant.
    Another thing that worries me is the lack of time for sustained free play. Very often these are kids who need help learning negotiating and regulating skills. Play is the best way to develop these skills. It also gives children a chance to process whatever chaos is going on in their lives.
    Yes, sitting and listening are important skills. However, the adults need to have reasonable expectations. I like the one minute per year approach. The reality is, in most of the programs I observe Circle Time is at least fifteen mimutes and often much longer and it is taken up by rote learning and repetition.
    There are lots of ways to introduce math and literacy skills to preschoolers. I just don’t understand why we have allowed the Kindergarten curriculum to be pushed down to preschool. The underlying needs of children, and their nervous systems, have not change. All I know is that I woke up one morning and someone had decided that four year olds needed to learn to read. If I ever find out who that was… Piaget must be turning in his grave.

  5. I’m with jwg – I, too, teach disadvantaged preschoolers and I know the challenges that face them are enormous and I’m being tasked with their “kindergarten” readiness. I know that, indeed, they are capable of sitting, learning the alphabet, lining up, etc. But!! I really feel that it is the role of educated and aware early childhood educators to push back against these expectations. If we don’t start advocating for early childhood programs that celebrate play and social skill development balanced with “academics” the torrential push-down that we have experienced in the past decade will continue.

  6. Nikki, Jenny, and Jenny, thank you for your posts and your supportive words. Mrs. V, let’s keep talking about the fine line we are walking as we go through the year. JWG and onesunflower, I agree with both of you. Four year olds should not be expected to read, and play and social skills and creativity are all vitally important to preschoolers. It is a fine line we walk, but I’m still going to fight for the importance of giving children in poverty as many advantages as possible.

    I think of the preschoolers I know (neighbors, friends, my nieces and nephews, my own kids at that age), and see that they have all had really rich preparation for elementary school, mostly thanks to their families. I don’t want to skill and drill my students to death — I want to give them as rich a preschool experience as possible, to be fair to them. Great books, fun and interesting field trips, play time every day, recess every day, rich content, rich vocabulary, you name it — these are the gifts I must give my students. Frankly, a lot of preschoolers from well-educated families are writing and reading in their own, preschool sort of way. Why not some of my students? I never expect anyone to learn how to read, but I give them exposure to all the tools they will need. I don’t expect them to write, but I give them exposure to all the tools they will need, and some of them gleefully start to write their own stories.

    I teach them as if they were my own children. I teach them with the assumption that they WILL go to college someday. I teach them with love and pride and confidence that they can and will meet high standards.

    But still, it is hard. And it is a very fine line I am walking.

  7. i feel like it depends on the classroom you have, but when it comes down to it they do need to learn to sit still to prepare for the coming grades. Always having a balance of each i feel like is best. They need structure but when a moment comes things can change easily into being less structured if the teacher is flexible.

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