A focus on school readiness
There was a time in my career as an Early Literacy Specialist when I recognized that ‘school readiness’ drove education policy, program development, research collection and analysis, and anxiety levels of parents and educators.
I remember being in meetings with representatives from early learning and care programs, from government ministries responsible for funding early learning and school age programs, and with data analysis coordinators who collected and interpreted numbers intended to shed light onto the multifaceted ways children demonstrate readiness to be at school during their senior kindergarten years.
There was earnestness in these conversations. Everyone was focused on setting up children to succeed. In many of these round table conversations, there was discussion about how to ensure parents knew how to prepare their children for school. There was less debate about how schools could better prepare for children. I recall no conversations that questioned whether or not the values that underpinned ‘school readiness’ as a goal reflected what children needed.
There was an assumed belief that if children had been read to from birth, and if they had experienced playful conversations and engagement with adults through singing or nursery rhymes, children were poised to learn the basics of literacy. If they had prior group experiences in childcare or early learning programs, they would more easily fit into classroom routines, know how to wait and take turns, follow directions, and express their needs and desires in socially acceptable ways. These were the simple hallmarks of school readiness which would enable them to develop skills used as benchmarks for learning – primarily literacy, math and science. There was, and still is, an assumption that children must be introduced to step-by-step instruction about these core skills so that they gain knowledge and mastery in lockstep with other children in their grade. Ideally each child learns at the same pace throughout their school career, so that they don’t ‘fall behind”. If they fall behind, the long-term risk of unemployment or low income earning (a risk to the individual) and of being a low contributor to the economy (a risk to society) increases in the eyes of families, schools, and government.
But is this true? Is an ‘economic engine of society’ the lens we need and value most for our 3- and 4-year-old children? How will this lens inspire children’s quest to discover and understand their world? Could our focus on specific measurable outcomes for children from such a young age stunt children’s inborn curiosity and unique perspectives about nature, ethnic, cultural, and gender identities? Might our beliefs about ‘school readiness’ be thwarting our youngest generation from teaching us much needed insights into how we can reimagine or deepen our relationships with each other and the natural world? Might a different lens, over time, alter the trajectory of human existence on this planet?
The transition to school
Certainly, the transition into school life is monumental.
- Parents are entrusting their precious child into the care of people they haven’t yet had the opportunity to get to know and trust.
- Children are typically experiencing school as a new place that is very different from home. The hallways, classrooms, and playground are filled with many more people with unknown expectations and personalities, who may not even speak their language. Will they get lost? Will anyone notice? Where will their parents be?
- Educators are wanting to create approaches and routines that create harmony and growth as a newly formed group of diverse children. Yet they are pulled between responding uniquely to each child in their class to knowing that they too will be assessed on how well the children in their class meet pre-defined benchmarks that have been developed in tandem with economists.
Maybe ‘school readiness’, rather than an assumed set of beliefs, values, or predefined skills, instead should be conversations – conversations that begin with the child.
Listening to children
Kindergarten orientation sessions often involve letting parents and children see the kindergarten class and gymnasium, meet the school principal and kindergarten teachers. In rural schools, these orientation sessions frequently provide a short bus ride for children with their parents—to experience this new mode of transportation in a way that allays anxiety for everyone. Of course, parents also learn about school expectations and routines, what to do if their child is sick, details about lunches and snacks, items and extra clothing to send to school.
These sessions typically also invite parents to ask teachers and administrators questions that are specific to their child and home circumstance.
Yet these crucial conversations to ready the child for school, can easily overlook one central and meaningful element…the child’s voice. It can also bypass reflection about adult assumptions, values, beliefs, and priorities.
As we prepare for children to enter school for the first time, we can begin the conversation about school readiness differently … with listening for the voices of our children.
Wondering how to grow school readiness that begins with listening for children? Check out a sample process in our resource Getting Ready for School Guide.