Kindergarten teacher: ‘Why our youngest learners are doomed right out of the gate’ — and a road map to fix it

Originally Published in The Washington Post

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May 8, 2019 at 1:00 p.m. EDT

Back in 2014, I wrote about a New York school that canceled its annual year-end kindergarten show because — are you ready? — the kids had to keep working so they would be ready for “college and career.”

If you think that was a singular event, guess again. Preschool and kindergarten have become increasingly academic for years, often to the exclusion of structured play-based learning that has long been seen by experts as being the best way for young children to be educated. Things have gotten to such a point that children who leave kindergarten without having learned to read are often considered failures.

Phyllis Doerr is a veteran kindergarten teacher in Newark, who is sick of the status quo. In this post, she writes about why so many kids “are doomed right out of the gate,” and she provides a road map to remedy the problem and making early learning joyful again.

By Phyllis Doerr

I once watched a kindergarten teacher pass by my classroom door, struggling to move a large wooden play kitchen toward the exit of our school building in New Jersey.

“What are you doing?” I asked my colleague.

“Moving this out of my room — we have no time for play!”

My heart sank.

To all who love and care about kindergartners

Dear parents of young children, kindergarten teachers, elementary school principals, district and state superintendents, university education program professors and administrators, and any person who cares about the education and well-being of our youngest learners:

Have you ever watched a 5- or 6-year-old child play? Have you seen a little boy cradle a baby doll, pretending to be a daddy? Or watched a team put together a giant floor puzzle? Or observed a pair of students work together creating a magnificent cityscape with blocks that includes a bridge? Or seen a little girl don a chef’s hat and apron and happily serve pizza to her customers?

Kindergartners should love and be excited about school. Their first year of formal education should be … maybe even a magical year. Early education expert Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers University professor and researcher, said that a child’s first learning experience determines a child’s attitude toward school for years to come. She maintains that the primary focus of kindergarten should be executive functions such as problem-solving, organizing, sequencing, conflict resolution, decision-making, and reasoning.

There is an important debate taking place over questions such as: What is age-appropriate to teach in kindergarten? What are the most appropriate teaching practices in the kindergarten classroom?

As kindergarten registration gets underway in the United States for the 2019-20 school year, let’s consider these questions: Which methods are working to achieve the goal of best educating young children? And which are not serving our goals for the education of our youngest learners?

These days, words that you will hear some educators and decision-makers use when discussing the question of what should be taught and how in kindergarten are: rigor, stamina, technology and standardized testing. Oh, and data.

I would argue that joy, character-building, social emotional learning, recess, multi-sensory/hands-on/interactive learning and multiple intelligences are more appropriate terms when it comes to discussing the kindergarten learner. Integrating these methods into instruction in the kindergarten classroom will result in better “outcomes.“

Things are not going well

As a kindergarten teacher for 10 years, I am surrounded by teachers both in my school and other schools. And I talk to parents in and out of my school. I am finding out that things are not going well for many kindergartners.

  • Recently on a plane, a kindergarten mom sat next to me. She lamented that she was pulling her child out of the expensive, private school her daughter was attending. The mom was upset that the school planned to hold the child back in kindergarten another year because she was not reading sentences.
  • A friend who is a mom of twins in kindergarten is panicked because her son is not reading proficiently, and the teacher has discussed keeping the child back. She instructed the parent to work harder with this child at home so they could bring him up to speed.
  • A fellow teacher is very concerned because her son is losing interest in school. In kindergarten!
  • A worried parent on an advice blog geared at helping parents raise their kids wrote: “My son is having a really rough year and it’s breaking my heart. He went to preschool for two years and did awesome! The teachers thought he would do great and I never had any behavior complaints. Kindergarten has been a nightmare. This year he’s having a hard time reading and writing. He says he hates school and he’s totally uninterested. I’m constantly getting phone calls that he’s distracting the class and acting out.”

The truth is, it is not that hard to do things right in kindergarten; to do things in such a way that optimal learning is accomplished and the child experiences joy, growth and even wonder.

Thanks to hundreds of child psychologists, researchers and experts in the field of early-childhood education, we have always known what makes a kindergartner flourish. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky pointed the way in the past, and more recently, early-childhood education experts such as Strickland, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Pasi Sahlberg and James F. Christie have added to our knowledge.

This has not changed over time because the brains of 5- and 6-year-old children have not changed. Psychologists, researchers and educators who have done the work for a very long time point to the same conclusion.

Kindergartners will not thrive as long as we continue to push developmentally inappropriate concepts, like:

  • Reading too soon.
  • Writing too soon. (They have been out of the womb five years and many of their little fingers cannot yet grasp a pencil.)
  • Making them sit for long periods of time. (Kindergartners can typically attend to a task that is of interest for 10-15 minutes, according to most reputable sources.)
  • Forcing so much time engaged in academic areas that no time is left for creativity, building, constructing, pretending, imagination, music and movement, social skills practice and so many other activities essential to the healthy development of the young child.

So what should we do?

Based on my experience (and lots of research done by passionate, dedicated professionals) kindergartners will thrive and love school when we:

  • Integrate instruction based on multisensory learning. Kindergartners learn with their five senses — exploring, creating, building, testing, sorting, organizing, pretending, moving, singing, chanting. Sitting still and listening for long periods of time is not how they learn. In fact, it is the opposite of how to best teach a kindergartner and is guaranteed to shut them down to learning.
  • Stop over-testing and teach with the premise in mind that testing is not teaching. (The curriculum my school uses includes a test on singing “Old MacDonald.” You read that correctly. A TEST. The child is to be given a SCORE on how they sing the song.)
  • Teach foundational skills in kindergarten in math and language arts, not complicated, developmentally inappropriate concepts that are largely beyond a 6-year-old’s reach. By all means, expose them to, and read to them, lots and lots of books!
  • In literacy, teach letters and sounds and pre-reading skills. With some exceptions, the brain of a young child opens the door for more proficient reading in first and second grade — not in kindergarten!
  • Stop making 5- and 6-year-old children take tests on computers. For many, the results are completely inaccurate because of the vehicle. Young fingers don’t work well on the keypad yet due to small-motor immaturity.
  • Bring back a balanced approach to teaching kindergarten. Learning through play in kindergarten should be a primary method of learning. Play is a child’s work.
  • Include an hour of outdoor play in the school day. Children are meant to be outside. Watch how they blossom in the classroom when they have enough time outside.

Major research spells it out

According to a major 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

The most powerful way children learn is on playgrounds and in playrooms…Play is brain building, a central part of healthy child development, a key to executive function skills and a buffer against the negative impacts of stress.

It is mind-boggling that in our current climate, major research had to be conducted to reiterate what 100 years of research has concluded and recorded in papers, textbooks, and articles by the thousands. Kindergarten-age children learn best through action-based, hands-on activities that engage their five senses.

Yet we continue to push practices that have been proven ineffective and counterproductive for most students. If Strickland is right, and I believe she is, our youngest learners are doomed right out of the gate.

What could be driving this trend in American early-childhood education? Why are we administering instructional practices that have been proven by every bit of research for years to be the WRONG way to teach kindergartners? Why on earth have, as Carlsson-Paige asked, teachers and other professionals who are concerned about poorly designed standards and an over-focus on academic skills been shouting into deaf ears for years?

One can only guess.

A road map to kindergarten success

To best illustrate what will most definitely open the kindergartner to learning and set the tone for their entire educational experience, I would like to borrow a profoundly important document from brilliant teacher, child specialist and pre-eminent teacher trainer, Jean Feldman.

I believe that when we adhere to the Kindergarten Bill of Rights, which is in effect a plea for a balanced and developmentally appropriate approach to teaching kindergarten, we will no longer hear that our youngsters are disinterested, hating kindergarten, acting out and “failing” because they are not yet reading. We will instead see excited, happy children, whose minds are open and fertile for learning and who enthusiastically look forward to school. Should it be any other way in kindergarten?

Kindergarten Bill of Rights by Jean Feldman

  • Kindergarten children have the right to the pursuit of happiness.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to wooden blocks and a housekeeping center.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to play dough and puzzles.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to hold hands with their friends and play games.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to free play outside.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to sing and dance and be silly.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to explore with paint, crayons, markers, glue, scissors and to make a mess!!!
  • Kindergarten children have the right to have books read to them … many, many books.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to go on field trips.
  • Kindergarten children have a right to a quiet time every day so their brains can process information.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to think school is the most wonderful place in their world.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to think that they are capable and worthy.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to hopes and dreams.
  • Kindergarten children have the right to smiles and hugs.
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The Heart of A Kindergartner

When I see my student glazing over as I teach, when heads start to bob and then drop and eyes close, I can be pretty sure that I have lost them. Mind you, I teach kindergarten so I must be very careful to keep my students engaged by making the teaching and learning exciting, active, creative, and dramatic. These days, some of the topics kindergarten teachers are forced to teach were previously taught in higher grades – like democracy and the presidents. Pretty dry matter for five and six-year-olds whose preference would be to do anything but sit still. Anything. So the first challenge is to get them to sit still for 10 minutes or more. And the second challenge is to teach them this dry stuff.
One of the best ways to keep the learning fun in kindergarten is by using music and movement, which we use to teach any and every concept – numbers, counting by fives and tens, letters and sounds, parts of a plant. Try as I may, though, creating music and movement around the first three presidents of the United States is all but impossible. Try singing “George Washington John Adams Thomas Jefferson ” to the tune of Hokey Pokey. See? Not easy.
Recently in my classroom, as my students sat “crisscross applesauce” on the carpet, I was quite pleased as I described democracy and the job of the president – and all my students seemed to be paying attention. I moved very quickly as I know I must with my audience, but I also expertly wove in “checks for understanding”.
“Tiarra, what does it mean to vote?” “To make a choice.”
I love the simplicity of kindergartners.
“Jeremiah, what are the rules of the voting?” “You can only vote once.”
“Right! Yes Jessica?” “Don’t vote for one just because your friends did.” “Very good!”
Now I was excited. My students were with me. They were getting it! Only a few more minutes of this and I would reward their focus with our Greg and Steve CD so they could do the freeze dance. I read a little more from my Teachers Guide, moving into some information about the job of the President. I glanced up after every two or three lines to make sure no one was dozing. Nope. Eyes were still on me.
This was nothing short of a miracle. If you know kindergartners, you know that a thread on the carpet can become one of the most fascinating objects on the face of the earth. The child will pick it up and run her fingers the length of it, scrutinizing every centimeter of that thread. She might hold it up in the sunlight to get a better look and then lay it on her lap to continue the intense observation of the thread. Those who are sitting close to the thread scientist may notice this intriguing object and want in. So they’ll lean in closer and watch intently as their friend becomes overtaken by the thread as if on the verge of discovering a new cure the common cold. Before you know it five, maybe six students have joined in the investigation of the thread. Now it’s a team of scientists for whom the thread is much more engaging than what is being taught. While this kind of distraction can and does disrupt the class, it is actually a beautiful thing. Kindergartners experience wonder about things that adults find utterly unimpressive.
As I explained to the class that in a democracy, the people make decisions, I noticed one student who was especially attentive. Alana sat up a little bit straighter then the rest and was leaning in – listening with her whole body. She was really engaged! Perhaps a bit more mature, this idea of self-government must’ve stirred something within her. As if she could not wait another minute, her hand shot up. But I was on a roll. I seemed to have every five-year-old mind captivated by the concept of democracy and I didn’t want to break the spell. So I glanced at her and kept going. Alana did not relent. I kept on explaining and reading but that hand stayed straight up in the air. She looked eager, almost desperate. She really wanted to share. I knew that I had better check to make sure she was going to stay on topic. In kindergarten it is the norm for students to share completely random concepts during any given lesson. The teacher could be talking about or reading a book about the seasons and a child might raise their hand and say “Mrs. Doerr, I like your hair.” Or “My father caught a giant lobster.”
“OK Alana” I said, “is this about the president, about democracy?” Alana nodded ever so slightly in response to my question, but I detected doubt in that nod. “Right Alana? Something about the president?” I repeated.
There was a pause as every head turned to see how Alana would respond. With a big happy smile she blurted out “My baby sister said her first word yesterday! She said Dada!” That was all it took. Like a long line of dominoes, the kids went down one by one. “My baby said my name!” cried Davon. “My little brother fell asleep hugging me!”, another yelled. All formality gone, our number one rule “we raise our hand to talk” went right out the window. It was a runaway train. And it veered off in all directions. Jenna said “My dad calls me princess!” And Annie, “My mom calls me Cinderella because I dance a lot!” Yvette piped in, “For my cousin’s birthday we were dancing and we were all dancing really funny!” And then this one, right out of left field “I was sleepwalking and I walked right into the closet!”
The free-for-all continued and I didn’t even try to stop it. The president and democracy would have to wait. Now it was time for me to tune in to them and listen to some very excited children tell me stories about the most important moments in their lives. Their faces beamed as they excitedly shared their shining moments. And there was not a thread to be seen.

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Testing in K: Too Much, Too Soon


This article was published in the Maplewood-South Orange News-Record July 2, 2015

as well as Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post On-line column The Answer Sheet, August 24, 2016.

Point of View

By Phyllis Doerr

As we wind down a year of tremendous controversy in the realm of education in the United States, I thought I would share some of my input given in January to a New Jersey Board of Education panel on testing led by Education Commissioner David Hespe.

As a kindergarten teacher, I find the trend to bring more testing into kindergarten not only alarming, but counter-productive and even harmful.

In the kindergarten at my school, we do not administer standardized tests; however, hours of testing are included in our math and language arts curriculum.  In order to paint a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September for 5-year-old children.

The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our “nursery rhyme” unit.  Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense, using the word correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word were used incorrectly, they would circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed — a foundational problem for this type of test.

My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word “market,” from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” After explaining the setup of the test, I begin. “The word is market,” I announced. “Who can tell me what a market is?” One boy answered, “I like oranges.” “Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?” “I like apples. I get them at the store.”  We’re moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, “It’s where you go and get lots of things.” Yes! What kinds of things?  “Different stuff.”  Another student chimes in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nod.

“Now, I will give you a sentence with the word ‘market’ in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence and doesn’t make sense, you circle the frown.” A hand goes up. “Mrs. Doerr, what’s a frown?” I explain what a frown is.

Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

The students who are not twisting around backward in their chairs or staring at a thread they’ve picked off their uniforms nod their heads. “Please, class, listen carefully. I’ll tell you the sentence again: ‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ That makes sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food.”

A hand goes up. Terrell says, “I like soccer.” “Okay, Terrell, that’s great! But did I use the word ‘market’ correctly in that sentence?”   “I don’t know.”

Another hand. “Yes? Ariana? What do you think?” “My dad took me to a soccer game! He plays soccer!” “Thank you for sharing that, Ariana.” The students picked up on something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. “Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?”  At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

So here we find another huge problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-year-old’s imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds OK to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergartners — unencumbered imagination.

After explaining why we might not play basketball in the market, I called on a volunteer to come up and circle the frowning face. She went straight to number 3 on my giant test replica, skipping 1 and 2, and circled the frown. Why? She’s 5 and has never seen anything like this. Give the same student a floor puzzle of ocean life and she and her friend will knock it out in 10 minutes, strategizing, problem-solving and taking turns with intense concentration.

The rest of my “test prep” for the 5-year-olds went about the same.

Then came the real thing.  As testing must be done in small groups since the children cannot read instructions and need assistance every step of way, I split the class into two or more groups to test.

The results of the administration of the test on the first group were mixed. Despite being the higher level students, their very first test was definitely not an easy task. Instructions for anything new in kindergarten are painstaking, but for a developmentally inappropriate task, it is nearly impossible. For example, making sure my little test-takers have found their place on the page requires constant teacher supervision. I cannot just say, “Number 2” and read the question. I must say, “Put your finger on the number 2.” Then I repeat, “Your finger should be on number 2.” Then repeat it. And repeat again, since some have difficulty identifying numbers 1 through 10. “Let me see your pencil ON number 2. No, Justin, not on number 3. On number 2.”  I walk around and make sure that each child is on the right number – or on a number at all. If you’re not watchful as a kindergarten teacher, it is common to have a 5-year-old just sit there, and do nothing test-related — just look around, or think, or doodle.

Next, I tested a second group. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circled every face — regardless of expression — on the whole page, another just circled all the smileys and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, “Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5.” She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. “What’s wrong, honey?” “Mrs. Doerr, I’m tired,” she cried. “I want my mommy.”  It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, “Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?” She nodded.  I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

So this is kindergarten.

We force children to take tests that their brains cannot grasp.

We ignore research that proves that children who are 5-6 learn best experientially.

We rob them of precious free play that teaches them how to be good citizens, good friends and good thinkers.

We waste precious teaching and learning time that could be spent experientially learning the foundations of math, reading and writing, as well as valuable lessons in social studies, science and health.

I support and enjoy teaching much of our math and language arts curriculum. Teaching vocabulary is a valuable practice. However, I contend that testing in these areas at this age is not only meaningless, since it does not accurately measure a child’s academic ability, but it is actually counter-productive and even damaging.

Further, I contend that my students are no further along at the end of the year than they would be if we eliminated most of the testing. In fact, they might be further along if we eliminated testing because of the time we could spend engaging in meaningful teaching and learning. Finally, I believe that a child’s first experience with formal education should be fun and exciting, and give them confidence to look forward to their education, not full of stress and fear because they did not measure up.

Parents and educators must speak out against harmful trends in education so that they can be reversed immediately.

Phyllis Doerr of South Orange is a kindergarten teacher.


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Who Is The Mayor of Newark, NJ?

One of the keys to organization in my kindergarten classroom is getting rid of things that I don’t need. But there is one chart that I just cannot throw away. I wrote it during a lesson 2 years back about “Our Community.” The question I asked my 5-6 year olds to begin the lesson was, “Who is the mayor of Newark?” Here are the answers: Martin Luther King, Obama, Jesus, God, The President, Abraham Lincoln. (The real answer was Cory Booker. )


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Guest post: my mom, a retired English teacher, reflects on recent changes in education

The situation has got to begin to reverse. It just has to! This retired teacher influenced hundreds, maybe thousands of children who were blessed to have had her as their teacher.

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 M had been crying since he walked in the door on a recent morning. He cried when he had to rush his breakfast because he was late. He cried when he couldn’t read a book because it wasn’t time for book reading. He cried when I didn’t immediately call on him during morning meeting. He cried – and wouldn’t stop – when he wanted to be line leader, but his job this week is the much loved snack helper job, not line leader. He crawled under a table, crying even louder, as we lined up to go to art.

 T was also having trouble. He tends to wander around the room, chatting with classmates, anytime he wants: during lessons, read alouds, group sharing and when I am trying to line up the class quietly to leave for art or lunch or bathroom.  He is learning that we have structure to our day, but it is not an easy lesson for him.

I kept both boys and 2 others back from art to talk with them each about the things they need to work on. A was under a table, M was under another table, crying LOUDLY, T was sitting criss coss on the carpet, crying quietly and S was flipping through a book.

T (the wanderer) turns to M, who is still crying.

T: You alright, M?

M: Stop messing w me.

Pause. T looks a little dejected.

Mrs. D: I don’t think he’s messing with you, M. I think he’s trying to help you. Am I right, T?

T: Yes. (kinda sulky and pouty)

M: (Through subsiding tears) Oh, I though you were trying to mess with me.

T: (Stands up and moseys over to the carpet, stands above where M is sitting.) What, you upset about not being line leader?

M: Yes.

T: Well, we take turns and it’s not your turn yet. Your job is snack helper.

(Walks back towards me.)

Mrs. D: T, maybe you can help him feel better. You think you can do that?

T: OK. (Walks over to M and quietly says a few things about this line leader dilemma. M responds, trying to explain. Pause as T thinks.

T: I know what you’ll like.

Walks over and gets his lunch box with super heros on it. Walks to M and hands it to him. M cracks a little smile as he takes it.

Mrs. D: T, come here. (I point to spot near me where I want him to stand.)                       Can I hug you? Yes. I’m so proud of you. You just did a very good thing. You made someone very sad feel much better. Here is a star.

T: Smiles shyly.

Mrs. D: A gold star – today, you are a superstar.


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Perspective… The coolest thing happened the other day. I was in my classroom at my desk (rare). I was fretting over how to EVER complete assessments for 20 students that were way behind schedule, many of which are 1-on-1. I had given the kids “silent reading time”, which means I put large bins of books on the tables and they “read”, while loudly pointing out every picture on every page to their neighbor. And a sweet 5 year old walks over to me and out of nowhere says, in her soft voice, “Mrs. Doerr, God has been very good to me.” I was so taken aback. I just sat back in my chair and breathed a sigh of – what I can only call – relief. With one sentence, my little friend had put everything in perspective. I said “Honey, thank you. You are so right! Why do you think God has been so good to you?” And she thought about it and touched her wrist and said, “Well, He gave me my skin.” Only a kindergartner!!

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