Monday, April 02, 2007

Getting an education

The polling station for our provincial election last week was located in the gymnasium of the primary school at the end of our street. In the late afternoon, all 3 us went together. As we approached the door, Helena gripped my hand tight and confided in me, "I feel a little bit shy."

I'd explained where we were going and why, but obviously the why of it didn't make a dent in her excitement to be entering this grand — to her eyes — building.

She expressed some confusion once inside, but no real disappointment. She was delighted to discover a row of drinking fountains, all her size.

Those few moments for me, though, caused months' long emotional turmoil to resurface.

No parenting issue had caused me tears like this one, when in fact there is not an issue, no problem to solve, only the facts to deal with.

Helena will not be starting kindergarten in September. Not because she's not ready, or willing; because she's not old enough. And this riles me. Maybe because I was already in junior kindergarten when I was her age now; she will be an academic year behind where I was at her age. Our birthdays are in November, a day apart. But whereas the cutoff for school entry age in my home province is December 31, it is September 30 in the province we live in now.

(I was first made aware of the situation when we set up an education fund soon after Helena's birth; the dates were presented as a matter of fact, but I've puzzled over them ever since.)

(The trusty internet at my fingertips, I've learned children all over the world begin their formal education, grade 1, at, on average, age 6 (which Helena will also be doing).)

Part of me wonders about the different life we'd be leading if we'd stayed put, not moved here when I was pregnant. It pains me that the distance of a 2-hour drive costs Helena an academic year.

It's inevitable: someone will always be oldest and someone will always be youngest in every class, no matter where the entry age dates are fixed. I was one of the youngest. Perhaps this contributed to the perception, mine as well as of others, that I was bright, ambitious. In retrospect, I can't say it served me particularly well — I would've done better to delay university by a year or two, even more. But Helena will be one of the oldest, and it bothers me no end.

There are several other November birthdays in her current daycare class. I find it strange that none of those parents are bothered; they're very matter-of-fact, it's a matter of fact.

It galls me to know that Helena's "cousin" is already nearing the end of her kindergarten year. She is only 14 months older (barely more than a year!) than Helena but scholastically a full 2 years ahead. Pesky cutoff dates.

More than anything, I'm surprised. Simply, I thought she'd be in school by now. This idea has been reinforced in countless ways. I hear about how important early education is, that children are untapped potential, sponges. It's counterintuitive that school should start so late. Of course, the early years are important for emotional and social development too; but I fail to see what difference an additional year at home or in daycare might make for the child who is not, by age, say, 4, already emotionally well adjusted and in a nurturing environment. Daycare, or community activities, is all very well for socialization, but children are fully equipped to be learning more than sharing, dancing, or colouring. There's so much more to gain at this age by going to school.

I don't want to be a pushy mom, a stage mom or hockey dad. I don't think I will be. If anything, I could use a little more pushy in my life, and would do well to set a more assertive example for Helena.

While I think Helena's smarter than your average bear, I don't claim that she's developmentally a year ahead of her daycare peers. There's plenty of time for competitiveness to rear its ugly head on Helena's own shoulder without my interference this early in the game.


I considered filing for a derogation for Helena. Exceptions to the rule can be made, but anecdotally they're very rare (we don't know anybody who knows anybody who's heard of anybody...). The application requires that the child undergo a thorough psychological evaluation. (J-F is dead set against putting Helena through such a process.) It must be shown not only that the child is ready for school, but that the child would suffer unduly by not attending school at an earlier age. Weighed against staying with her peer group in a good daycare (and she would — will — stay happily, not knowing what she's missing), how does one measure the loss?


I can't help but feel I should be doing something more, that Helena should have more, that this is all very wrong.

Junior kindergarten is uncommon here. I am grateful that her daycare is more pedagogically focussed than many.

Private school is not an option (nor is homeschooling). Financial concerns aside, I back the principle of a public school system.

What's driven home hard to me is how desperately I need to step up. Somehow. Helena lately wants me to play school with her, so I do, regularly; we practice printing letters, she's warming up to reading, she has a facility with numbers, basic arithmetic. But I'm a mom, not a teacher; I haven't a clue how to proceed.

For all the good my "early" education did me, I've learned only that "me" in the parenting equation has produced an infinite not-good-enough, a sequence of fuckups.

I'm tired of crying over this. I'm overwhelmed by the irony, that the one most fundamental, to my mind, aspect of a person's life — an education — the thing a parent is most responsible for managing, is the one I feel I have the least control over and most inadequate to provide.

I'm sincerely interested to know your opinions and your experience. What is the school entry age, and the cutoff date, where you live? Do you have any structured learning time with your child, and just how structured is it? When should children start school?


cipriano said...

Isabella.... just to set you at ease, I myself did not go to Kindergarten at all. I went straight into Grade One!
And look at me!
I'm perfectly nor....
Wait a second... I forgot about the time I was diagnosed as RMR [Retroactively Mentally Retarded]... umm... never mind.
Still. Your daughter will be fine.
I received my own assessment when I was 41 years old.

Suzanne said...

I just sat down to write my comment, and now my kids are making it clear that this will not be happening at this moment. I will be back later -- I have a very similar situation on my hands with Allie.

marydell said...

Although you think Helena will be the oldest child in her class, it's possible that there will be some being born in October. Children are amazingly resilient and adaptable, so once she gets to school she and her classmates will likely not notice an age difference. As she gets older, her age will make more of a difference and she may enjoy getting to do some adult things (like learning to drive) before the rest.

Since I taught elementary school, I am more than happy to give you some suggestions for games and activities to keep her educational progress going. If you're interested, please feel free to let me know.

Gaelicgrl said...

I know we spoke of this already, but it really sounds as if your focus is squarely where one would want it to be and Helena will benefit from your interest in her education.

Because she wants you to play school with her, I think it's clear that she knows that she learns well from/with you and that she trusts you.

Diana said...

Of course, this may not apply for Isabella at all, but even though Katie was perfectly within her age range when she started school (her birthday is in May and the cutoff was late summer sometime), she has always been immature for her age and if I knew then what I know now I might have had her wait a year. So you never know. It's not always about academics.

However, I had always heard that the rigors of kindergarten were much more than in my day, and that kids these days have to arrive at kindergarten reading already. Mine did, but they were the only ones by far. It was SO frustrating to watch as they were reading 3rd grade readers while the entire rest of the class was learning the alphabet and colors! Like you, I had invested in two years of an excellent preschool program as well as the reading together we did at home and it turned out that the rest of the kids in their classes had been watching Barney their whole lives. Or something. One 5-yo could recite passages from The Titanic (rated R) but could not write her name.

Sigh. I'm getting off topic. I think I'm trying to say that no matter what you do or don't do, Isabella will most likely be ahead of her peers, academically. Regardless of when she starts school. You just have to learn to deal with it, work with the teachers, get special projects for her. It becomes less of an issue each year, it really does.

In Joey's case, because he is NOT socially immature like Katie is, I was asked every year in the early grades if we wanted to move him ahead to the next grade and my instincts always told me to decline. They're children for so little time. I really didn't want him to be around "older" boys any sooner than necessary and we have never regretted this. Joey is frustrated at times in school but his sense of humor and innocence are right there with his classmates. One year can make a big difference in the preteens.

So I guess you might be glad one day that Helena's friends are all younger than her and not older.

rachel said...

I have some strong opinions about education myself, and should probably write my own rant over in my own space. I think I can sum it up pretty tidily in a couple sentences, however:

She has the rest of her life to follow other people's directions and be bored out of her mind. Enjoy this last short year, and do what you can to cultivate her curiosity and her ability to teach herself.

(Yes, I spent my entire education wishing I were elsewhere. Is it that obvious?)

Anonymous said...


You say that homeschooling is not an option; however, you can still do school-type things with Helena in the evenings, or whenever is appropriate for you. Teach her to read, if she is ready, by all means. I waited to teach my twins (9) to read, and they have now been caught up to by their 6 y-o brother--I attribute this to beginning to teach reading when interest was first manifest, rather than waiting b/c we "aren't doing school yet." You could check out a library book on homeschooling your kindergartener, not b/c you'll do that specifically, but because it will have good suggestions of things you CAN do to make Helena's horizons broader, and suggest books to read (for her and you)and things to think about. (The Well-Trained Mind is a good one to look at, even though you aren't going to homeschool.) Take advantage of this extra year of innocence, and enjoy it! Peace!

Suzanne said...

Allie just misses the cutoff for kindergarten -- as in by one day. The school system is, shall we say, inflexible about this cutoff date.

Last year I had to decide whether to enroll Allie in the 3-year preschool program; by doing that she'd progress from 3-year to 4-year preschool, followed by transitional kindergarten and then regular kindergarten. I was afraid she'd be bored silly by what is essentially a third year of preschool, so I decided to keep her out of preschool until this coming September.

Now, she'll have two years of preschool and then enter kindergarten. At all those stages she'll most likely be one of the oldest kids. This worried me a lot for a while -- I was filled with resentment over the idiocy of her missing a whole year because she was born about 7 hours too late.

However, I'm more at peace with the decision because I realized that emotionally Allie is pretty immature. Having her (and I can only speak for her alone) be one of the youngest kids in the class would, I think, have been more a detriment than anything else. I hope I'm right.

I can empathize with your sadness over the delay, but I think Helena will be fine no matter when she enrolls in school. And it sounds as if your "homework" approach is exactly what it should be.

Isabella said...

Thanks, all, for the reassuring sentiments and suggestions.

I'm not worried at all about Helena being older than her class in any social sense — she seems to slide into whatever environment pretty easily — just that the time until she starts school shouldn't be "wasted."

I've never liked flashcards, for example; I don't see myself doing that kind of thing with her at all. I wouldn't dream of rushing her out of childhood, but I don't want her to be bored or stunted by not being able to pursue something at daycare (which is where I come in, with our time at home). I'm all for a more natural process, following her lead — her interest in reading comes and goes so I don't push it, but play a lot with numbers. I'll foster curiosity as best I can — I think it's this I find most daunting, to inspire her; simply, I'm not confident of my ability to rise to the challenges as Helena presents them.

Diana said...

Sigh. I just noticed that I wrote your name when I meant to write Helena's. ("This may not apply for Isabella at all...") You know, of course, that I know the difference between you and your daughter. Sorry about that.

As for rising to the challenges, I have found that the best opportunities are unplanned and happen just because I always have a lot of varied reading material strewn around. If there's a lot of stuff around and available, as there is at your house, you never know what she'll idly pick up and start reading. And then afterwards try to talk to you about only you'll be unable to keep up. But it's ok. :)

Jo Anne said...

Your daughter has just been given a great'll realize that later. Relax! She'll be fine. She is not missing anything by being given more time to grow and mature. As a Kindergarten teacher in a school where the cutoff date is September 1, I can tell you that we have often considered moving it back even further - perhaps July 1. What she will gain from this extra year with you is irreplaceable....enjoy it!