Parenting

I Was (Overly) Obsessed With My Son's Kindergarten Readiness

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Katie Cloyd/Instagram

My son Walker is almost five years old. He is one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met. He can read hundreds of words and simple books. Walker knows simple multiplication tables, and will proudly tell you how to spell his name. Under most circumstances, I’d take one look at this kid and think that he is wildly over-prepared for kindergarten.

But there’s just one little tiny thing.

Walker is autistic. He doesn’t require a lot of support, but he is quirky. He prefers exploring to sitting still. My son talks all day long, but not exactly like you might expect an almost five-year-old to talk. He loves learning, but he has no interest in writing whatsoever.

Walker went to a small private preschool last year, and we loved it. He will be attending public elementary school, so I knew he would benefit from a year of full-time public preschool to get him ready. The smaller school didn’t have a focus on kindergarten readiness, and that was important to me. We enrolled him in our local elementary school in the fall.

By all accounts, Walker is doing well. The other kids smile and wave to him in the drop-off line. His teachers are amazing, and his therapists are really communicative. I can’t honestly say that anything really happened to make me start panicking.

Somewhere along the way, my anxiety took over.

I realized we only had a single school year until he needed to be in a typical kindergarten classroom, and in my unprofessional estimation, he wasn’t ready. Not by a mile. He can’t write. His speech is delayed; do they even realize that he is probably legitimately brilliant?

I started to think of preschool as the make-or-break, do-or-die, end-all-be-all year for Walker. I spent the first few months of this school year sending nervous emails to all of his teachers and therapists. Eventually, I became a little bit obsessed with his “progress” and kindergarten readiness. I kept hoping they would assure me that he was on track to be a kindergarten student next fall, but I never asked outright until just before winter break.

My email must have been a little extra frantic and panicked this time, because one of the therapists on Walker’s team called me and her reassurance made all the difference. She encouraged me to step back, take a deep breath and just listen to what she had to say.

I’m so glad I did.

She helped me realize that Walker isn’t obligated to learn everything he can possibly manage to cram into his brain in preschool. Contrary to what my concerned mama heart has been telling me, preschool is not actually an extended, yearlong test where my atypical son has to prove that he can hack it in a mainstream classroom. Kindergarten readiness is not really their goal for Walker, and I basically needed to calm down.

She explained that the Pre-K program actually has only a fraction of the resources that will be available to him at the elementary level, and it is okay for him—and me—to relax and let him enjoy the time he has left in this class.

At first, I kind of wanted to argue with her and insist that he needs more help. My mind was racing. “If only he had some extra OT this year, maybe he would be able to write by kindergarten. Can I send you a video of him reading? I promise, he can do math! You just don’t see it because he doesn’t talk much at school. But please, don’t underestimate him! My boy is so smart. So capable. He doesn’t talk exactly like other kids, and some of his quirks can be challenging in a classroom, but I know he can be a good student and a really happy member of the class if his teacher can see him for everything he is.”

She went on to clarify that everyone on his team does see him for all that he is.

It’s their job to observe him, get to know him, and help him learn in the best way possible for him. They all chose their professions because they love children and education; they want him to succeed as much as I do. Their professional pride rides on watching kids like mine thrive.

In their notes to one another, they describe him as sweet, eager and smart. They share his victories, and brainstorm how to support his challenges. His teachers help him along.

They don’t push him like I kept wishing they would because he is four years old, and he has the right to learn at his pace, and enjoy preschool. He’s not falling behind—he’s just learning different things than I imagined he needed to know.

I was obsessed with kindergarten readiness because I was looking at preschool as Walker’s best chance at achieving everything he is capable of so the school system wouldn’t give up on him.

As his mom, I’ve always felt a need to prove how smart and capable he is. I’m afraid people will underestimate him, and he will fall through the cracks. I don’t want that to happen. To me, he deserves the whole world and everything in it.

I admit that sometimes I go into his meetings ready to fight, just in case. It’s hard to let my guard down and trust that other people might just want to see Walker be the best he can be, too. I’m still working on helping myself believe that I’m not the only one that sees and loves my baby.

I think that lots of parents with kids like mine understand what I’m feeling.

When your kid doesn’t fit the mold, you can start to feel frustrated and angry that the mold is the standard to begin with. Who decided that every single child should be capable of the same things just because they emerged from the womb around the same time? Raising a kid who marches to their own drum really opens your eyes to the fact that we don’t provide kids in general with enough beats to choose from. (But that’s a story for another day.)

Unfortunately, we can’t always change the system to accommodate our kiddos, so sometimes, we have to help our kids thrive in a system that wasn’t designed for them.

The worry starts early, and I know we have a million greater challenges ahead as he grows up.

But if you’re like me and you have a little one with some special considerations who is younger than school-age, and you’re worried about kindergarten readiness like I was, I encourage you to take a deep breath.

Reframing my expectations is the best thing I ever did for my son, his teachers and my own anxiety.

For kiddos with special needs, preschool is an extra year to learn how to be in a classroom, to receive free services that they are entitled to by law, and if necessary, to establish an individualized education plan, or IEP. It’s not a test to prove that they are worthy of being seen, appreciated and educated properly.

Kids with special needs are entitled to a free and appropriate education just like every child in this country. Some of them will be educated in mainstream classrooms. Others will flourish in special education rooms. Some of our kids will need a lot of support throughout school, and some of them will do very well with limited additional help. Whatever our atypical kids need, they don’t have to prove that they deserve it. They don’t have to earn it. They are allowed to go into kindergarten bewildered and unprepared just like any other kid, and figure it out as they go.

My kid has an IEP for a reason, and he will have extra help as long as he needs it.

The first day of kindergarten is not a deadline for him.

It’s a brand-new beginning full of possibilities.

It wasn’t easy for me to admit that I needed to adjust my expectations for Walker’s time in preschool, but now that I have, I am so much less anxious, and so full of hope. Kindergarten readiness isn’t a goal I have to be obsessed with. He doesn’t have to check every box on some kindergarten checklist. My smart, beautiful boy is entitled by law to an education and if I’m willing to fight for him, he will get it. He doesn’t have to prove himself to earn it, and it’s a relief to know that I can let some of my perfectionism go.

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