Burned Out in Kindergarten?

Our obsession with academic rigor in the early grades has gone too far.


Kindergarten should be a time of wonder and exploration. A time for making friends and learning to work together. A time for learning to love letters, numbers, words, scientific discovery, and learning itself. But today kindergarten has become the starting line for a marathon of academic drill-and-kill and inappropriate assessment. It has become a structured environment where “kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long.”

As vacations grow shorter and school days longer, we’re putting more pressure on our little ones. It’s time to ease up on the academic push and bring joy back to kindergarten. Here are five reasons to rethink the demands we’re putting on our kindergartners.

Academic rigor is just not developmentally appropriate for 5-year-olds.

It’s common knowledge that today’s kindergarten is yesterday’s first grade. In fact, for the past 35 years, policymakers have focused on improving children’s performance by demanding they be taught more academic content and take more tests to monitor their achievement.

You might remember kindergarten as play time, snack time, and rest time. But today’s kindergartners must read all of their alphabet sounds, sound out three-letter words, read at least 20 to 30 sight words, count to 100, skip-count by fives to 50 and by twos to 20. And most classroom teachers are pressured to push their students beyond the minimal expectations. In fact, 80 percent expect students to read by the end of kindergarten.

Child development experts warn that a full day of academics is too much to ask of young students. In the article “Reading at Five: Why?” the Alliance for Childhood lays out the argument that just because children can be trained in an academic pursuit doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for them. In addition, any advantage gained by early academic rigor may not last long. In fact, research shows the benefits diminish by the third grade.

Too much too soon affects kids’ attitudes about school.


Children’s attitudes about school are formed early in life, for better or worse. The primary goal of kindergarten should be to set kids up to love learning and love school. Instead, pressure to perform academically is discouraging our young learners. In her article “Pressure Cooker Kindergarten, education writer Patti Hardigan cautions educators against judging students’ academic potential at an age when their ability to perform varies widely from day to day. The risk of labeling a child who is not ready for a full workload can adversely affect their enjoyment of, and success in, school. “Children form impressions early on,” she says, “and when they feel like failures at 5, that’s hard to turn around.”

Medical professionals confirm the adverse effects.

Teachers have increasingly witnessed a rise in behavioral issues in the classroom, including problems with social interactions, attention, problem-solving, and emotional control. Many of these problems stem from the increased pressure to perform. In many cases, medical professionals are dealing with the fallout. According to the CDC, diagnoses of depression and anxiety in children have nearly doubled since the early 2000s. In addition, diagnoses of ADHD in children have increased dramatically.

Pressure to teach essential literacy and math skills has increasingly limited time for free play and exploration.

Early childhood experts agree that play is essential for healthy development and deep foundational learning at the kindergarten level. In fact, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, when children miss out on the work of play, later learning can be adversely affected.

Many kindergarten programs claim to strike a balance between play and academics. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean free play. For example, Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, which is implementing full-day kindergarten next year, includes “intentional” play into their curriculum. That means playtime, but guided playtime with an academic purpose.

Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Researcher Christopher Brown, PhD, warns that today’s rigorous curriculum is diminishing young learners’ sense of wonder. “Across the country,” he says, “kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long. They play less and study more than they did 20 years ago. This is what kindergarten has become, and it’s not a good thing.”

Teachers have had enough.

Many teachers detest the increased academic demands and pressures on their young students and are questioning their willingness to teach under these conditions. In fact, many are moving up grade levels or leaving the field to avoid the heartbreaking conditions demanded by the standards. In her poignant resignation letter, 25-year veteran teacher Susan Sluyter writes, “I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children.”

What are your feelings about today’s kindergarten? Come share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, why it’s time to rethink rigor in kindergarten.

Burned Out in Kindergarten?