Kindergarten readiness is one issue that closely linked to another—that of classroom behavior. Most public school classroom teachers depend on parents to send their children to school with ingrained behaviors that allow them to perform according to the rules and enable them to learn in the style the school sees as appropriate to the group size and the ratio of children to teachers. Some parents manage to comply with this expectation. And some children, even in spite of their parents or their home life, are willing and able to conform to what school requires. But other children aren’t or can’t. Expected school behavior may be quite alien to what’s needed by some children at home and in the neighborhood where they live. Social skills taught at home may not work in school.
Consider the streetwise inner-city child who has learned, even by the age of 5, to survive by interpersonal skills that allow him to manipulate people and situations. He gets little chance to use those skills in school—except out of the teacher’s sight during recess. Interaction during class time is strictly controlled, and certain expectations are enforced according to a set of rules. He comes to school self-reliant and independent, but his manner borders on defiance and that attitude gets him in trouble. He’s also aggressive. He knows he can solve problems through physical action, but at school he finds he’s expected to use words alone. “Fight back and don’t tattle” is the rule at home. School rules are different: “Don’t ever touch anybody; tell the teacher if you have a problem.” The child who has incorporated the rule from home is going to have problems in school, starting right away in kindergarten.
It may seem reasonable to try to give this family a new set of child-rearing practices to help their child do well in school and eventually rise out of the circumstances the family is in—if not immediately, at least by the next generation. But the truth is that it’s not easy to change child-rearing practices. And an outsider taking on such a task is taking on a good deal of responsibility unless he or she clearly understands how the child-rearing practices serve the culture, the family, and the child. In addition, it is quite difficult to get people to change how they are raising their children unless they have a special reason for wanting to change. Changes in child rearing tend to come after social and economic changes have come about.
In the meantime, this little streetwise child has a problem. If he conforms to classroom expectations, learns the rules, and takes them home to apply them, they won’t work in the same way they do at school. Some children are flexible enough to learn a new set of skills and apply them where they work while keeping the old set for the times when the new set doesn’t work. However, other children never adjust to the school environment.
Not all children who don’t fit valued classroom behavior are physical and aggressive. Take the girl who finds herself in a classroom where self-direction, initiative, independence, and competitiveness are the skills stressed. These skills are the ones seen as functional to the higher-level, higher-paying, middle-class occupations and social positions. But the girl doesn’t see the connection and perhaps has no expectations of growing up to work a high-level job anyway. She only knows that while the teacher is urging her to be special, to do well, to stand alone, to stick out, and to be a winner, all she wants is to fit in and be loved. She doesn’t want more stars on her star chart than anyone else. She doesn’t want to sit isolated and do her own seat work without talking or looking at someone else’s paper. She wants hugs and attention from the teacher. She wants to sit on her lap at story time. She wants to socialize with her classmates. She wants the same warm group feelings that she gets at home. She wants to be a part of things, not separate and individual and alone.
This girl won’t get in trouble like the little boy in the first example. She’ll be thought of as sweet but probably not too bright (though she may, in fact, be quite intelligent). Eventually she will fade into the background and become invisible like the other children who don’t give the teacher problems. Feeling that she doesn’t fit in, she may give up on education early and find something else to do with her life. Or, less likely, she’ll figure out how to learn even under the alien conditions of the classroom and end up going all the way through college as an invisible person, doing very well, but not drawing attention to herself (McKenna & Ortiz, 1988).
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