My first grader doesn’t like school – and I don’t blame her!

by Tama Koss Caldarone

Tama Koss Caldarone lives in Florida with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 4.  She was a child abuse prosecutor for 12 years before deciding to leave the practice of law in order to teach and write, primarily on children’s issues. Her oldest daughter is currently a first grader, attending a public school. This post also appeared in The Answer Sheet in the Washington Post

I have a young child who turned 5 years old just six days before kindergarten began.  My husband and I made a decision to allow her to attend because we believed she was ready. Now she is in the first grade. Did we make the right choice?

She is now resisting her education and regressing in her emotional development. While she is succeeding in school, she is very resistant to direction at home, is not interested in her homework and often discusses her love of art, which is ignored in school except for 30 minutes each week.

She learns best and is excited by exploring the world around her, a skill not taught in today’s public schools. She loves to create and play. At school, however, she is herded like cattle, not treated like a child. She is forced to sit in a chair most of her day watching a screen. Her teacher teaches through a computer projected onto a wall and uses classroom computers and iPads to occupy students. There is no real guidance on the use of computers. The only restriction is in using “child-friendly” websites.

Excessive computer use, conformist teaching methods and minimal playground and outdoor time frighten me. Is she learning? Will she succeed in the ways I want her to? If I don’t push her, will she fall behind? If I do push her will she succeed in life?

My job as a parent is confusing. I want to foster my daughter’s interest in learning, not squander her curiosity at the age of 6. I want to feel comfortable knowing my daughter’s teachers are fostering her individuality and assisting her in finding her own way of learning. How are we accomplishing this by conforming to a bureaucratic view of how best to educate our children?

This must be changed. If we want individual, independent adults, we must treat our children as individuals and foster in them a love of learning. We must teach them effective communication. We must not teach memorization and force them to regurgitate facts and figures. We must allow children to move, play. After all, early childhood development experts say play-based learning is best for young kids.

I am dismayed by the disparity between the research on child development and standards implemented by our schools in a way that lacks exploration, creativity and play-based learning. It’s offensive. When children are forced to try to learn in these environments, many display elevated levels of aggression, resistance to learning, an inability to emotionally connect and succeed.

Our children deserve better.  They deserve to learn through broad-based individual experiences.  We need to capture their imaginations when they are young and foster in them an excitement about the world as they learn to live in it.  We need to give them the skills and mental disciplines that will help them grow into adults who are creative, strong and independent, yet work well with others. These, in fact, are the qualities employers are looking for — not conformity or superior numbers-crunching ability.

How do we do this? By giving our children the freedom to grow, be creative and foster passion through play-based learning, imaginative lesson plans, the ability to get up from their seats and move, and group learning. Finland’s highly successful public school system doesn’t start formal education until age 7, allowing kids the time to grow developmentally. We should be more open to the educational approaches of some other nations that don’t push their children to read until later in childhood and that focus their youngest students on learning through play and exploration that allows them to develop emotional skills and coping mechanisms, kindness and togetherness. Why are we doing the exact opposite?

With today’s technology, we have the world at our fingertips. So why are we exposing our children to excessive technology without explaining it — or fail to use technology to authentically teach children individuality?

Let’s do better. Let’s teach them to be kind, generous, creative, independent, loving. Let’s not insist on school experiences that turn them into angry “do as I’m told” adults. Let’s build schools that appreciate young children as malleable and vulnerable. Let’s support educators who are creative and positive forces in our children’s lives, and who allow our children to independently grow and who foster children’s creativity and passions. Let’s teach children to be good, kind people — not smart robots. Let us empower our children, not squander individuality. We need to teach to all different types of individuals and allow their excitement for learning to shine.

Communication is one way to improve our schools. Parent-teacher communication and giving the parent the opportunity to be a part of their child’s education will undoubtedly create successful and healthy children. The schools need to have more accountability to their parents and, in turn, their students.
These all will improve communication: providing daily schedules, regular reports on students’ behavior/classroom habits, homework details and how it correlates to what is learned in the classroom.

Students would want to go to school and would look forward to learning if they were permitted to have longer outdoor recesses, the ability to move around the classroom, more daily breaks or recess, smaller group lunches, more options and choices for students to pursue and experience what they individually might enjoy. Furthermore, anxiety and stress in children would be lowered, leaving more time for exploring and, in turn, learning.

We need to get away from testing and placing students in a box.

Let us educate and support teachers willing to give our children their all each day, willing to speak up against administration politics when they believe in a child’s ability or that there is an incorrect policy, willing to foster our children’s individuality and learning, willing to push our children to be individual, kind human beings.