Digital Children

Raising children in a high-tech, high-pressured information world.

Kindergarten Retention

Coming out of kindergarten feeling badly about yourself.

Across our country, from 10 to 30 percent of kindergarten children are retained in kindergarten or placed in "transitional" classes. These children are failing kindergarten because they are presumably not ready for the rigors of first grade. Yet the early years of schooling are crucial in determining the child's long-term attitudes towards self, teachers and learning. A child who emerges from the early years feeling good about himself or herself, respecting teachers and enjoying learning, will regard education as exciting and as a positive challenge. Contrariwise, a child who leaves the early years of schooling feeling badly about himself or herself, with a low regard for teachers, and turned off to learning will find lunch the most interesting part of the school day.

Kindergarten retention totally ignores what we know about child development. Early childhood is a period of very rapid intellectual growth. Some young children attain the age of reason, the ability to engage in syllogistic reasoning (All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal) at five, some at six, some at seven. All children, with the exception of the extremely retarded, get these new abilities, but they get them at different ages. Syllogistic reasoning allows children to follow rules and to appreciate that one thing can have more than one defining trait (Socrates is both man and mortal). These two abilities are critical for learning the tool skills of reading and math. Formal education should not begin until the majority of children in the class have attained these reasoning abilities. That is why, in the Scandinavian countries and in Russia, formal instruction does not begin until the age of seven.

If you ask first grade teachers what children need to succeed in first grade they say children must be able to:

a) follow adult instructions

b) start a task and bring it to completion on their own and

c) work cooperatively with other children--take turns, stand in line etc.

With these social skills in hand, once children attain the age of reason, they will easily master the tool skills.

At the heart of this mistaken and destructive retention policy is the assumption that education is a race and that the earlier you start, the earlier and the better you will finish. But education is not a race; it is a journey that takes us through all of the stages along life's way. How we school our young children will very much determine the kind of lifetime learners they will be.

David Elkind is Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University.

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