There’s not much positive you expect to hear when your child’s teacher calls and asks if you have a moment to talk. I suppose, on occasion, that question is followed by, “Your child’s a genius and we need to start prepping him for his first TED Talk.” But generally it’s not great news.
This call was no different. And I sat in my cubicle, surrounded by books and papers, my son’s kindergarten teacher told me what I already sensed: that he was struggling. He was having trouble learning and writing letters. He didn’t seem to be understanding the different consonant sounds. He was getting frustrated.
I had known things weren’t easy. His first months of school didn’t go well. He didn’t want to go to class. He yelled at his sister. He lashed out at the babysitter. He began putting himself down.
With each incident, I grew more worried. I wondered if we’d pushed him too soon.
My son was born in November, and as such, only barely makes the December 1 cut off for the school year. He’s the youngest child in his class, and was only four when he entered kindergarten. Suddenly we found ourselves taking him to birthday parties for his classmates who were turning six, when he was still weeks away from turning five. Only a couple of months earlier, he had been in a fours program playing with blocks and trucks. Now he was expected to hear a letter sound, identify it, and write it on a piece of paper. It was no wonder he was falling behind.
We had considered holding him back—“redshirting” him—giving him more time to mature socially and academically before sending him into the wilds of kindergarten. We had a mental list of pros and cons, with a pretty hefty list of pros for his starting kindergarten. First and foremost, his preschool teacher said he was ready. We were worried he’d be bored with another year in the same setting, especially with the rest of his friends moving on. And even with two incomes, the cost of preschool was difficult. It seemed to make sense, academically and financially, to move him forward.
The only con? He’d be a little younger than the other kids.
Yes, our list was heavily weighted in favor of sending our son to kindergarten. But I failed to understand just how big—how meaningful—that one con was. I thought I had considered everything. But I hadn’t considered just what it would mean for him to be younger than everyone else. How could I have known? My daughter was an April baby, right in the middle of her class in terms of age. I had no comprehension of the significance of those extra months.
It’s hard to watch your kindergartner struggle. It’s hard to have him come home deflated, his interest in school gone, his self-esteem floundering. It’s hard to hear a four-year-old criticize himself for not being able to do things that, frankly, maybe a four-year-old shouldn’t be doing. Maybe he would be better off playing with trucks after all.
That day at work, on the phone with my son’s teacher, she told me the plan: he and a few other students would receive in-class extra help a few times a week. He would also receive occupational therapy to help him hold his pencil correctly. She’d check back in with us at his next parent-teacher conference to see if further steps were needed. I gave a sigh of relief. It didn’t sound so bad. I was grateful his teacher was on top of the situation, and tried to be optimistic.
And, to be honest, things have improved. We had our meeting, and while his school work to me still looks a bit like a Kandinsky painting, his teacher was greatly encouraged by his progress. I’ve noticed a change in my now-five-year-old’s attitude as well. He comes home excited to share what he’s learned. He sounds out words and tells me what letter things start with. By the way he’s picking up math, I’m confident he’ll one day be doing our taxes. It’s still a challenge to get him to sit down and do his homework, and but I recognize the progress.
Did we make the right choice? It’s hard to know, as we wait to see if he continues to catch up, or if he falls further behind. There’s a part of me that feels as though we robbed him of his early childhood. Then there’s the guilt over exposing him to stress and self-doubt at such a young age. Was any of this necessary?
I suppose I’ll never know the other side of the coin: the potential boredom and frustration of being the oldest in a preschool program with all of his friends in kindergarten. But kids are resilient. He’s back to being our smiley, silly little guy, who can now tell when I’ve shortchanged his allowance. He’s even starting to mature—to act more like those older kids in his class.
And maybe, for now, that’s the real loss.