Everyday when my five year old son comes home off the bus after being gone at kindergarten from 8:30am until 4:30pm, I open his backpack and throw his homework away. At times he protests telling me that his teacher said that his homework will be due on Friday. I always reassure him and then give him my homework for the afternoon- a nature walk.
I shared with you last week that our family decided against private school for the time being. We don’t love our public school, but it isn’t horrible either and we are attending despite my concerns. Perhaps, for a variety of reasons, you are also in the same boat. What can you do to advocate for and protect your child from some of the negative aspects of public school?
Here are my top public school red flags and realistic action items for parents:
RED FLAG: A lack of outdoor and indoor free-playtime that does not allow children the chance to individually explore and own their own learning experience.
- TIP #1: Consider throwing away your child’s homework. Communicate with your child’s teacher that you will not be completing homework or projects at home because you feel that spending seven hours in a classroom environment at the age of five is more than enough structured instruction. If your child desires to complete an assignment, and can do so without your assistance, then support their initiative. Primarily, time at home needs to be unstructured to balance out a young child’s school day of structure. Too much structure, though well intended, can be a detriment to your child’s development and can set them back academically, emotionally and socially and is linked with ailments such as ADHD, depression, aggressive behavior, etc… To learn more, click here for a review of a recent study and here for a review of a book on the topic by leading psychologist and researcher Dr. Alison Gopnik. Getting outside, even in undesirable weather, is also essential and many schools have risk-adverse policies which keep children indoors at the hint of bad weather. To read more on the importance of outdoor play, click here.
- TIP #2: Declutter your schedules and remove unnecessary structured activities from your child’s day. Remember, the entire day at school is structured. Young children need a chance to unwind at the end of the day. Children use free-time to process and cement learning. Parents often provide structure because we feel uncomfortable with “free time” and rest. It is important to consider the arguments the experts are making about free play and to be a little counter-cultural in how we choose to schedule our household. To read more about how to address boredom and free time at home, click here. To read more about how to declutter your schedule and why this is critical and beneficial in the early years, click here. Young children who attend school everyday, do not need to be in structured activities more than once or possibly twice a week beyond school.
- TIP #3: Provide a variety of excellent toys and activities for free-choice play at home. Do you regret that your child is doing more worksheets than exploration with pattern blocks in math? Provide pattern blocks, wooden blocks, puzzles, games and other wonderful educational activities to explore at home after school. If you need suggestions, visit Intelligent Nest, LLC’s Toy Recommendation Guide or Toy Store powered by Amazon.com. You can also still rotate toys and activities for older children.
RED FLAG: Overly structured curriculum and top-down pedagogy that focuses too heavily on memorization and academic concepts with the assumption that five and six year olds learn in the same way as older children and adults.
- TIP #1: Do not pressure reading practice at home. Young children do NOT need to know how to read at the age of five. It is not appropriate to expect a young child to learn to read in kindergarten or preschool. Some children will learn to read and others will take their time and master the skill in first grade instead. There is nothing wrong with your child is they do not want to or cannot read. Instead of doing your “reading homework” with your child, continue incorporating reading, phonics and letters into your more natural family routines (trips to the store, playtime in the backyard, etc…). Read together for fun at a regular time each day and if your child wants to help you read, wonderful! Never ask a children to read with force or expect them to do so. Support their attempts without labeling their skill level or applying positive pressure (which can backfire). Ask questions about the story in fun ways to develop sequencing and comprehension, but if a child doesn’t respond, just keep reading. Make up stories together, use large vocabulary words with your children in normal speech and enjoy conversing with them as much as possible. For more on developing reading skills with 3-6 year olds, click here. Also, communicate to your child’s teacher that you will be doing this instead of her assignments.
- TIP #2: Pull your child out of school occasionally for family-only field trips. Young children learn best with contextual, sensory experiences and when they take initiative to do so on their own. Older children and adults can learn while sitting in one spot, reading, writing and listening to instruction, but young children typically do not respond well to this approach. You can follow the curriculum your teacher is using or fill the blanks to curricular areas that the school is weak in with field trips. Schools typically short change science, history, art and music. Obtain orchestra tickets, visit an art gallery with sketching materials, go to an invention fair, etc… If you notice your child is really interested in a certain topic or activity, find ways to nurture this interest and you can use school hours to do this.
- TIP #3: Take ownership of your child’s education. Your public school is not in charge of ensuring that your child receives a good education, you are! School attendance in kindergarten is not compulsory and you have no legal requirement to send him or compete any assignments or tasks requested. Don’t allow your school to dominate educational decisions for your child. It can be uncomfortable, but be willing to communicate your concerns about and desires for your child’s education. Use your gut and don’t be afraid to swim against the current. Also, be ready to support and encourage your child’s teacher as he or she does not have an easy job. Many teachers also disagree with the current methods they are required to use and so you may find support in unlikely places.
RED FLAG: Very large student population and class size makes it easy to be overlooked (i.e. no one adult really knows everything about your child or the happenings of the school).
- TIP #1: Volunteer at school. Find at least one way to be involved in your child’s education. If you are busy, perhaps this means meeting with them once or twice a month to eat lunch in their cafeteria or volunteering to help with one event for the school year. The more you are available and in the classroom, the more you can learn about your individual child’s social, emotional and academic process. Plus, teachers are human and it is hard not to favor students whose parents support and help them with their work.
- TIP #2: Share at least one sit down meal with your child each day. Family meal time is a scientifically significant part of the day for a number of reasons and one of which is that it opens a channel of communication between parents and children. Have you ever tired asking your child how their day was as you drive home from school? Most often, kids don’t want to talk about school right after school, but eating together breaks down barriers and you can learn about your child and their experiences during mealtime.
- TIP #3: Let your baby go. Don’t confuse involvement with obsession. In most cases, it isn’t necessary or healthy for you to be at your child’s school every day or many days of the week. If you want to be really involved, aim to go to school one or two days each week. There are many reasons to let your baby spread their wings and learn to fly on their own. It can be easier said than done, for my personal reflections and tips, click here.
Emphasis on testing and preparing students to succeed on tests
- TIP #1: Talk to your child about testing. Don’t expect that your child’s teacher will explain the purpose of testing. Take initiative and sit down with your child to convey how unimportant the results of testing are to you. Tell your child that it is always important to try your best, but that they don’t ever need to worry about getting the right answers or being better or worse than their classmates. In your home, performance is not important, only effort and attitude.
- TIP #2: Opt out of testing. If your young child is really sensitive and upset by testing, you can opt out. Pull your child out on the days that testing will occur and ask your teacher to not do a make up. You may need to submit a written letter conveying your wishes to the principle. In most cases, this is not necessary as most children are fine with testing, but more sensitive children may need a few more years reprieve from the pressure and it is OK to wait until the later grades to complete the tests.
Remember, you are the expert on your own child. No one teacher, principal or specialist will know more about how to educate your individual child than you. They are there to advise you and execute tasks, but you’re in charge. Be involved, own your child’s education and don’t be afraid to swim against the current. Educators work hard, love your children and believe in their vocation so don’t forget to be appreciate and supportive of their hard work too. Recruit your public school to be on your child’s educational team. Just remember that you are the head coach!