Secretly? That’s a really complicated question. It should have a straightforward answer, but it doesn’t. It’s a term that gets used by preschools a lot, I think in part because everyone automatically agrees with it. “Of course I want my child to be ready for kindergarten! In fact, now that you mention it, I don’t trust any preschool that’s not getting my child ready for kindergarten!” It’s a bit like calling your education policy “No Child Left Behind”—who could disagree with something called that? Are you saying you want some children left behind? You monster!
So I think a lot of schools use the phrases “kindergarten readiness” or “school readiness” because it sounds good and important—but they’re terms that are rarely explicitly defined. What do they mean? Well, Head Start says that school readiness means “children possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and later learning in life” (2012). That sounds pretty reasonable, right? The only question is, what “skills, knowledge, and attitudes” are we talking about?
The problem comes when people assume the important skills and knowledge are all academic—reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, you know. Certainly those are skills and knowledge you’ll need to acquire over the course of elementary school, and in our standardized-test-focused, get-ahead-oriented culture, it’s easy to think that the earlier young children start learning to read and write and recite the quadratic formula, the more ahead they’ll be, and the more ahead they are, the more successful they’ll be. The logic sounds okay, but the problem is it’s not really true.
For one thing, education isn’t a race. Children aren’t going to finish sooner, and if they did that wouldn’t necessarily mean finishing better, or more ready for life outside school. Second, kids’ brains aren’t ready to learn that stuff whenever we want them to. The fine motor skills to hold a pencil; the ability to visually distinguish letters; the abstract thinking required to subtract… those things take practice, yes, but they also just take time. No matter how hard you push your 4-year-old, they’re not going to learn algebra—their brain just isn’t wired for it yet.
Yes, if you work hard, you can get them to perform the behaviors you want. You can get a 4-year-old to memorize the alphabet backwards or recite the Gettysburg Address or perform single-digit subtraction. But you’ve got to ask yourself: at what cost? What will it take to get the child to do those things? Will the child come out of that process excited to learn, excited to go to school?
When you survey kindergarten teachers, “the great majority [say] that the most important factor, for kindergarten readiness is for the child to be physically healthy, rested and well-nourished. A majority also believe that children should be able to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts verbally, and that enthusiasm and curiosity are more important for school readiness than knowledge of the alphabet or counting ability” (Heaviside et al, 1993). If children don’t know the alphabet, kindergarten teachers can TEACH them the alphabet. If children don’t know how to regulate their emotions and bodies, that’s going to be a much bigger problem.
To me? If a child learns nothing else in preschool, they should learn that “School is an awesome place where I do great work!” If they walk into the first day of kindergarten with that thought, I think half your battle’s won already. After that, I’d say ability to meet own physical and emotional needs is important; ability to follow directions and cooperate with other children close behind that. Curiosity and interest in learning? That’s up there too. Literacy and math are way down the list (though fortunately it’s usually convenient to teach some of those skills at the same time as the other stuff in preschool!).
I also always think of Belann Giaretto, director of Pacific Primary in San Francisco, almost shouting, “It’s not children’s job to be ready for school! It’s the schools’ job to be ready for the children!” Amen to that.
So, back to your original question: what the heck do preschools mean when they say their program promotes school readiness? You’ve got to ask them what they mean. And if their answer starts and ends with literacy and math, I’d take my business elsewhere. But that’s just me.
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Teacher Tom, as per usual, has some great thoughts on what kindergarten readiness looks like to him, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Amanda Moreno at the Huffington Post has some depressing thoughts about the differences between what kindergartens look like and what they should look like.
Also: do you need help choosing a preschool? I help families work through making that choice.