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Sit still, listen are hard lessons for some little ones

Kindergarten as an unnatural place to be.

The article subtitle is: Early learning vital for kindergartners to meet increased academic demands These 'increased academic demans' are inappropriate, unnatural, and even damaging to many children's best interests

The State Superintendent mandated all-day kindergarten with age inappropriate curriculum, and now she says the five year olds who don't do well at sitting still all day need mental health attention for acting out. It would be entirely appropriate for these children to shout, "We're as mad as hell and we're not going to take this any more!" Since they can't really do this, their parents should do it for them.

Some of these teachers need to be sent to the behavior rooms. Surely they know better than to make these sorts of demands on young children.

This article convinces me absolutely that we must end compulsory schooling. It is definitely harmful to children. Some of these kindergartners will become school averse as a result of this early mistreatment.

By Candice Evans

SALISBURY -- Students' names on white index cards were located underneath a large smiley face in the green zone of Mrs. Lawson's behavior chart.

That day, no students were in the "so-so" face yellow portion or worst, under the sad face in the red.

"If you get your name in the red you can't have recess," said Saul Martinez-Martinez, 5, who attends Carter G. Woodson Elementary School. "Get in red, you go in Mrs. Lawson's book."

Their fate could be worse.

Teachers are sending more students to the principal's office because of increased "less-than-desirable behavior" in the classroom. Disciplinary office referrals continue rising in area elementary schools, and teachers are noticing a change in their students starting at the kindergarten level.

The number of kindergarten referrals in Worcester County jumped to 23 last year, up from just two in 2005-06, according to the county's board of education statistics.

In Somerset County, 95 referrals were recorded last year, nearly doubling the 47 referrals the prior school year. And in Wicomico County, referral counts were 500 last year, an increase from 460 the previous year.

"We're beyond concerned," said Margo Handy, director of elementary education for Wicomico County schools. "As we see it, we have to respond to it. We need to target more kids at an early age before they get into middle school."

Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties eased into full-day kindergarten several years before it was required in all 24 Maryland school systems. All students are expected to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the year 2014 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Many teachers believe placing social workers in elementary schools to work directly with families in addition to reducing kindergarten class sizes would alleviate some of the pressure already on the students to perform well academically.

"The rigor of curriculum is much more advanced with higher expectations," Handy said. "Kindergartners learn how to read words and books. The nature of school is drastically changing and it continues to change."

Debbie Lawson, a kindergarten teacher for more than for 20 years, has found the behavior chart to be successful with her students. She also keeps a book to record the children's progress.

Martinez, who recently received a 100 percent on his math test, has some difficulty staying out of the red zone.

"I do work because my mom will be so proud of me," said Martinez, wearing a black and yellow biker T-shirt. "(Sometimes) I can't go out for Fun Friday -- I'm not upset. I don't want to go outside for Fun Friday."

Lawson simply smiled at his response.

"He's very smart, and his mother is very supportive," she said. "He gets in trouble for talking or he'll do something -- I'll ask 'Why did you do that?' He'll say, 'I don't know.'"

Each week a behavior slip is sent home for the parents to sign, with an explanation of what the child did if they received a sad face. Students who manage to stay in the green all week are rewarded with Fun Friday, which includes playground activities and popsicles.

"It's hard being good, because it's just hard," said Stephen Evans, 6, who has never moved his card from the green. "You just have to listen."

When Lawson's students misbehave, they go to the "sad room.""I'll tell them 'You're missing out on all the fun and that makes me very sad you're not with us,' " Lawson said.

Emotionally unprepared

Nancy Grasmick, Maryland state superintendent of schools, believes it's important to address mental health issues early.

"Schools are always a reflection of what is happening in society," Grasmick said. "Children are coming from homes that are structured very different from the school environment."

For the past four years, the New Day program -- funded through the Wicomico Partnership Families and Children -- has worked with more than 350 middle school students who have been suspended or expelled from school, said Mark Thompson, executive director of The Salvation Army Richard Hazel Youth Center.

After recognizing a need for younger students, Thompson -- who also serves as vice president on the Wicomico County school board -- has begun contacting area elementary schools to start utilizing their program.

"Small children have become part of adult conversations and adult lives," Thompson said. "When I was little, they told the kids to go into another room."

Schools are almost becoming "surrogate parents," Thompson added. Many students eat breakfast and lunch during the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, he said. The students who participate in after-school activities stay there until 5 p.m.

"There's a group of parents that feel that's our job (to raise their children)," said Allen Brown, Wicomico County's assistant superintendent of student services.

Handy encourages parents to be proactive with the child before they enter kindergarten.

"Teach your child how to come to school with the set of skills to sit, listen and react," she said. "Teach your child respect, to listen and follow directions, and we'll do the rest."

New Maryland State Department of Education data shows kindergarten readiness varies in proportion to prior early learning experiences.

In 2006-2007, children who were enrolled in pre-K programs (70 percent), child care centers (71 percent) and nonpublic nursery schools (83 percent) the year prior to kindergarten exhibited higher school-readiness levels than those who were at home and in informal care (55 percent) or were in family child care (65 percent) the year prior to school.

Currently, there are more than 18,000 kindergarten-aged children in Maryland who still need targeted or considerable support to do kindergarten work.

"If children are not developmentally ready to engage in work that requires long periods of attention and little contextual learning, they may act out," said Debra Ackerman, associate director for research at the National Institute for Early Education Research in New Jersey. "Kindergarten teachers may also not be structuring their extra time in a way that maximizes the enhancing of children's early learning skills."

Ackerman encourages teachers to be mindful of their curriculum and the amount of time spent engaged in activities that present opportunities for children to get bored or frustrated and then "act out" as a result.

"The 'fault' for the kind of behavior that leads to an office referral might not lie solely with the children," she said.

Lawson said she can always tell if students were enrolled in pre-K.

"There are kids that come to us in September who have never been in a structural situation," she said. "For some children, they're sitting still for the first time."
Class size

Four years ago, Pinehurst Elementary School molded its four half-day kindergarten sessions into three full-day sessions. Classroom numbers increased from the average of 15 students to 24.

"Classroom size went up, and expectations of curriculum went up," said Kathleen Cordrey, Pinehurst kindergarten teacher. "We're doing what first-graders used to do."

A report from the American Education Research Association confirms that smaller classes can produce lasting gains, particularly for minority and low-income students.

"Class Size: Counting Students Can Count" synthesizes research on class size and concludes that the greatest impact is seen in the early grades. For maximum effect, class-size reduction efforts should start in kindergarten or first grade with an ideal number of students being a class of 13 to 17.

Mary Mackes couldn't remember having to refer children when she started teaching kindergarten at Pinehurst Elementary in 1999. Now, it's once or twice a week.

"Most people would be surprised that kindergarten children were referred to the office," Mackes said. "It just usually didn't happen in kindergarten."

This year, Lawson keeps an eye on 20 kindergartners; it's a significant decrease than in past years when she's had as many as 28 students.

"These kids are a different breed," she said, laughing. "It's mostly being disruptive, whistling, talking and not wanting to pay attention. They have a hard time with 'keeping hands to yourself.' One year, I had a little boy who wanted to kiss everybody."

Ruby Brown, Pinehurst Elementary vice principal, is usually given the task to reprimand these children for "bad language, disrespect and insubordination."

"It is the level of disrespect that's shocking," she said. "The repeat children who are being referred have had some success when attention was brought to the problem. Teachers are very successful at a price because we are not addressing social needs."

Despite the need for more desk space, Cordrey was one of the only kindergarten teachers to keep a kitchen playset in her classroom.

"I kept mine for indoor recess," she said. "They need a chance to play -- they're only 5 years old."

A social worker or behavior therapist could work with children who are "acting out" because of the advanced curriculum or a difficult home-life situation, Mackes said.

Unfortunately, Wicomico County only has two social workers serving the schools, Handy said. They spend the majority of their time at the high schools.

"Managing behavior with a social worker and smaller class sizes is a long-term fix," Mackes said. "We just don't socialize to the extent we did before."

Fruitland Primary School will have their own in-school suspension room at the end of the month for disruptive students. Principal Darrel Morris said they wanted to have an additional layer of intervention for students having difficulty staying in regular classroom instruction.

"We have had an increase in referrals in the past five years and see the need to try to intervene before we do a last resort -- out-of-school suspension," Morris said.

All Wicomico elementary schools have the ability too access in-school suspension rooms, but the fact that Fruitland Primary wants one of their own "speaks volumes," Handy said.

"We had these areas in place for some time," she said. "Fruitland is just getting to the point they've had a handful of concerns and issues with behavior."

Morris hopes to have the room fully operational by the end of the month. He also wants the new in-school-suspension person to be instrumental in leading a Positive Behavior and Intervention Strategies program to address behavioral issues. The schoolwide incentive program "recognizes and rewards students who do the right thing," Morris said.

Disciplinary office referrals at the kindergarten level are very low in Worcester County public schools, said Barbara Witherow, school spokeswoman. At Buckingham and Pocomoke elementary schools the total number of disciplinary office referrals to-date for the 2007-08 school year is less than five.

Todd Hall, principal of Pocomoke Elementary School, said the implementation of the school's PBIS program has had a tremendous impact on reducing referrals.

Woodson Elementary School gives students paper "sand dollars" to use at the school store. Monthly incentives, such as pizza or pie parties, are held when an entire class deserves a reward.

Back in Somerset, a mystery person is chosen in Lawson's class every day by picking a student's name out of tin full of popsicle sticks.

"If you're good after lunch, you get a lollipop or choose a book you get to keep," said Jade Ward, 5, who was poking her classmate's pencil at the moment. Lawson took this opportunity to fill the reward basket with a large bag of mixed candy.

"Awesome! Whoa!" said Ward and her classmate, Michael Sterling, in unison.

Sterling was having a difficult time staying focused on his classroom assignment.

"He's never been out of the green," said Lawson, pointing to Sterling, wearing a canary yellow T-shirt. "You need to sit."

He quickly obeyed.

"You see more of immediate results of teaching earlier on," Lawson said. "(Kindergartners) are very loving and forgiving."

Martinez promised his teacher that he will try "very hard" to stay out of the red zone to avoid the consequences.

"My mom is going to get sad at me," he said.

— Candice Evans
The Daily Times





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