Kindergarten readiness lists: not the way to build a ‘whole’ child

Readiness lists, checking off different abilities like shoe-tying and counting to 10, are still being used in some schools. But some parents who believe kids are whole beings, not criteria checklists, would like schools to put them through the shredder.

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When my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, the first class goal was shoe-tying. By mid-year, the kids who were able to tie their own shoes were invited to sit on the special storytime rug as the teacher read aloud. Three-quarters of the way through the year, I discovered this practice when I asked why my daughter was one of the few children sitting in a chair during story time.

I kept my composure as the teacher explained that sitting on the rug was a reward children received once they were able to tie their shoes. When the school day ended and the story time rug-sitters shuffled out of the building, backpacks threatening to tip them over, I occupied my daughter with a few markers and pulled the teacher aside.

I explained my daughter would not be tying her shoes that year. She most likely would not be tying her shoes the next year or the year after that or even the ten years to follow. I had made the decision to place her in a kindergarten classroom despite her autism, despite the fact that she was developmentally years behind her peers. I knew she would not be learning with them, I wanted her to learn from them.

Had I received the list handed out by Hamilton County Schools, a “kindergarten readiness” list that has since gone viral, I might never have placed my daughter in a classroom. The list includes identifying basic shapes, cutting with scissors, and following along correctly as you read a book. Any one or two of the items on this list might sound reasonable, but when you put all 11 requirements together, it adds up to a pretty intimidating piece of paper. Looking at it makes me glad that I didn’t see such a list back then, because I wasn’t sending my daughter to a traditional kindergarten to check skills off an academic list, I was placing her there for the experience—for what she might learn if she had the chance.

We are ignoring normal variety in children’s development

There are all different kinds of learners in the world. My daughter is the oldest of five, and struggling through her years of labels and diagnoses gave me a completely different outlook on the abilities of her siblings. One of my sons is an excellent reader but uses his fingers to add and subtract. The other is good at math but groans when it’s time to read. My younger daughter has actually hidden under the table as I open her math book or announce it’s time for spelling.

Two years ago we made the decision to begin homeschooling them. After parenting their big sister through 21 challenging years, none of their academic hang-ups concern me, for two important reasons: They are happy, and they will learn in their own time.

In our house we define success as being comfortable with your abilities and proud of your accomplishments. I loathe tests and assessments that tell me where my kids are or should be—because who decided the criteria? Who made this list for Hamilton County Schools? When did we decide to put so much pressure on children’s academic achievements at such a young age? Setting goals is one thing, but chiding or classifying our kids when they fall short is another.

Having a child born with challenges has taught me to parent and appreciate my children as whole people, not as students who check accomplishments off lists.”

There are many children without access to learning materials or adults at home to teach them the correct pencil grip, or “30 letters” (if you’re wondering how it could be over 26 letters, lower case and capital letters count separately). Are they doomed to failure in a kindergarten classroom, or do they just need quality educational time with a teacher to gain these skills? Imagine a parent who can’t afford books or isn’t schooled in the “best” pencil-holding technique. Imagine how she feels pulling this list out of her kid’s backpack and reading it—never mind the parent of a child who may never gain these skills, no matter how hard they try.

Having a child born with challenges has taught me to parent and appreciate my children as whole people, not as students who check accomplishments off lists. After seeing the pressure put on our children in a classroom setting, and how much time is spent teaching them to perform to standardized tests, I’m confident in our decision to homeschool.

I’m also still confident in my discussion with that kindergarten teacher 15 years ago, when I was a young mom, who wasn’t really sure I was doing the right thing by placing my child in an environment over her head. I’m glad I explained to a woman in her first year of teaching that my daughter would be the first of many children who may not accomplish all a kindergartener is asked to do or remember.

When I decided that yes, my daughter would be sitting on that storytime rug—whether I sent her in Velcro shoes for the entirety of her grade school years or not—it was the beginning of many years of advocating for her. It was also a turning point in my confidence as a mom, and the moment I learned that my daughter wouldn’t be defined by someone else’s version of success. I think a part of me decided right then and there how to deal with the many lists that would be sent home with my child in the years to come: they would not hold us back.

Jessica Watson
Jessica Watson

Jessica Watson is the mom to five, four in her arms and one in her heart. She lives in a noisy house in Michigan where she finds the occasional quiet moment to write.
Jessica is the author of the children’s book “Soon” and the blog

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