Q: My 5-year-old son is in kindergarten. Most days he gets a note home saying he failed to pay attention and follow directions. We've tried disciplining him and talking to him. Nothing works. He's the only African-American child in the class, and he says he gets blamed for things he did not do. His pre-K teacher didn't have similar complaints. -- A mother in Winder, Ga.
A: Notes home and spankings don't help a child make the tough transition from preschool to kindergarten. "A note home each day does not provide enough information," says education expert Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot of Harvard University. She suggests starting with a face-to-face teacher conference, asking for specific examples to get a clearer picture of what's going on in the classroom and how to help solve the problem. Kindergarten teachers should expect some children to take until Halloween, or even Thanksgiving, to become socialized and accustomed to the more controlled regime in school. Ultimately, parents and teachers need to work as a team, says Lawrence-Lightfoot, author of "The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other" (Random House, 2004).
Try to come to any teacher conference with your emotions in check but with questions jotted down: Does he fall apart at a certain time of day? Do certain kids distract him? Find out what behavior is expected of the students, not just academics. Are there opportunities to move around the room? Can any adjustments be made to accommodate his learning style? Show positive interest, and leave the conference knowing how to stay in touch with the teacher.
"Don't let the teacher off the hook with statements such as, 'He doesn't behave the way the other children behave,'" says Natalie Leath, a mother in Tacoma, Wash. "If you cannot get a satisfactory answer, ask for a conference with the teacher, counselor and principal. I would not discipline my child further until I knew with certainty there was a reason for the teacher's remarks."
If left to fend for himself, a child struggling to make the transition into kindergarten is at risk for feeling victimized and disliking school. In addition, a parent or teacher can also become defensive around the child, Lawrence-Lightfoot says.
Not all children, particularly boys, are ready to start school at age 5, as a mother of six children in Raleigh, N.C., found with her oldest son. She delayed his entry into kindergarten, but describes another son as "chomping at the bit to learn to read and write." "I've had many friends whose boys have had to repeat kindergarten," the mother says. "Maybe he is bored, or not ready to learn."
Several parents say the child would benefit from a more diverse classroom. Lawrence-Lightfoot -- who was the only African-American child in some of her Advanced Placement classes in high school -- says she can relate to the difficulty of tokenism. "As a parent, I would want to know what role race plays in the teacher's judgment of my child," Lawrence-Lightfoot says. "It's hard to be the only one of anything in a class. If you're the only yellow among greens or the only X among O's, it's difficult."
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