Kindergarten: the new first grade

Story and slideshow by JACKSON CALDWELL

The start of anything can seem overwhelming. No matter the age or experience, new environments can be hard to grasp. Kindergarten is the first step in the ladder of education. In kindergarten students are expected to sit, listen and learn from a teacher, which is a new experience for them. Not only are students learning the essential skills of math and literacy, they are learning how to be a student for the first time.

However, not all students participate in kindergarten. In the state of Utah, students are not required by law to attend the grade of kindergarten. By having students in first grade without any skills or knowledge learned in kindergarten, it creates an uneven starting point for students.

Unless Utah legislation makes changes to the state’s education system, this imbalance of students skills will remain. Although the change is the decision of the legislature, the teachers in Utah are the ones facing the problem firsthand.

Laralynn Caldwell, a kindergarten teacher currently at Farnsworth Elementary in Granite School District, has been teaching for four years in both charter and public education schools. When speaking of her time in education she made it clear that kindergarten is necessary.

“Kindergarteners are now learning the foundational concepts of math and literacy that were taught years ago in first grade,” Caldwell said. “When a first-grade teacher gets a student that did not attend kindergarten, it is detrimental to their whole class. The teacher takes time away from other students to train and teach a student with no educational background.”

Caldwell said the problem is not having a clear starting point for students. “For all other grades expectations are clear for where a student needs to be at the beginning of the year. But there is no real reference point for kindergarten.” Kindergarten teachers are overwhelmed teaching students who have little to no skills at the beginning of the year, and preparing them to be ready for first grade by the end of the year. This sets children behind before they have started grade school.

Utah does have some requirements for kindergarten. Every district in Utah is required to offer at least a half-day option and assess every kindergartener at the beginning and end of the year. However, this started in 2017 as a statewide assessment and is still being developed to understand what students should know before they start kindergarten.

By using a standardized statewide test, educators and lawmakers will start to see real data that will validate this change for mandatory kindergarten. By making kindergarten regulated and required, the Utah Board of Education will have more data to understand how kindergarten impacts a student’s future education.

The success rate for students who complete kindergarten goes far beyond education. Heather Taylor is a parent with a daughter currently in first grade. Taylor sees kindergarten as more than naptime and coloring.

“Kindergarteners are expected to learn at least 50 words, all their letters and sounds and count to 100 by the end of the year,” she said. Taylor was impressed with her child’s ability to work and communicate with other students. “Although some things can be taught at home, her ability to see other points of view and work as a team are both something she excels at because she attended kindergarten.”

Taylor is not the only parent who feels this way. Another parent interviewed spoke of the difference between her two children. She wished to remain anonymous because her son started first grade without attending kindergarten, whereas her daughter did.

“My first child I kept home during his kindergarten year,” she said. “The next year it was a struggle every morning to get him to go to first grade.” But the experience was much different transitioning to first grade with her daughter. “When my second child started first grade after kindergarten, she was ready for the longer hours, schedule and being away from mom.”

When students start school, there is a transition period where separation is difficult. However, the skills learned in kindergarten help students have a positive outlook on their education. The growth of the student can be seen by both parents and teachers. Emotional needs are also addressed in this important grade.

Erica Hibbard is the social worker at Farnsworth Elementary. She expressed the positive outcomes she has seen. A social worker’s job in a school is to oversee the child’s well-being in the classroom and at home. Hibbard works with students from kindergarten to the sixth grade.

“Students who attend kindergarten are more equipped for the first grade because they have learned how to emotionally self-regulate,” Hibbard said. She has seen the effects that starting school earlier has had on students she works with. “Kindergarten provides the first building blocks for students to engage in problem-solving, cooperation and other social-emotional skills.”