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The pressure to get kindergarten 'right' makes for anxious parents

Kindergarten teacher, Sharon Lee, with her new students at Carlthorp School in Santa Monica.
Kindergarten teacher, Sharon Lee, with her new students at Carlthorp School in Santa Monica.
Steve Springer, Carlthorp School

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When Cynthia Freeman recently took her son Abram to school for his first day of first grade, she barely got to kiss him goodbye. As soon as they arrived at Franklin Avenue Elementary in Los Feliz, Abram sped off to class, briefly turning to wave and call out “bye, Mom!!”

Last year, when he started kindergarten was a different story.

As the teacher was closing the door, she said, “the kids were reaching out, the parents were reaching out, the kids were crying, the parents were crying, everyone was anxious.”

But the anxiety didn't start there. Like many parents, Freeman and her husband started the kindergarten process a year before that, when they began researching schools. They knew what they wanted for Abram’s education and set out to find it somewhere in Los Angeles.

“We looked on, we looked on Ask a Magnet Yenta, we talked to friends, we talked to people we knew from the rec department soccer league,” Freeman said. “I was that anxious Mom.”

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They found the perfect school: a neighborhood school in Los Feliz. But they didn't live in that neighborhood. So Freeman and her husband uprooted their family moved. It took them six months to find a rental.

As more and more studies link success in kindergarten to future success, parents are becoming more and more intent on picking well.

A 2010 Harvard study that found that not only did academic performance in kindergarten correlate to future earnings, also just being in a smaller class size for two years increased the chance of going to college by 2 percent.

Add to that kind of statistics the growing choice of schools available, and finding the right kindergarten has become an elaborate and stressful affair for many families.

For many parents, choosing a school involves weighing countless factors. Public or private or charter or Catholic? Does the school have an arts teacher? Is there an aide in the classroom? What about ethnic and class diversity? Dual language immersion versus English only? What’s the school’s API? Is the principal passionate? What are the after-school programs like?

And the list goes on. What time does school start? What time is lunch? Are the lunches healthy? 

Getting kindergarten right was so crucial to Pasadena attorney and mother of two, Kristen Lee, that she spent months researching the options. She felt like she had to.

“I was crazy. I had a spreadsheet,” Lee said. She wanted to organize all the information so she could better weigh the options.  “Does it start at 8:40 or 7:40? And then, logistically, is it geographically desirable or not?”

While she said she feels “crazy” for doing it, Lee said “it really helped!”

She and her husband chose a charter school in Pasadena. While deciding on the school and then winning the lottery to get a seat was a huge relief, now she is feeling a new anxiety as her son's first day looms.

Lee believes that this deep anxiety parents feel today is different from the past. Her own son has been in daycare since he was little, so she is used to being apart from him during the day.

First steps

“Its not the fact that he’s leaving me,” Lee said, “but kindergarten is like the first step in the educational process.”

To help alleviate some of that anxiety, she attended a class to prepare herself for her child starting kindergarten. 

Called “Kindergarten 101” the class is taught by veteran kindergarten teacher Sharon Lee.

In her 25 years of teaching kindergarten, Sharon Lee has seen parental stress increasingly impact children in the classroom. That’s why she began the class.

It distills what happens in the kindergarten classroom. Having survived the arduous process of choosing the right school, she said parents are eager to follow their child's progress in class.

"Parents often want to know 'Where does my child stand?'" Sharon Lee said. She never answers that questions, but tells parents, "They stand where they are. It doesn‘t matter where everyone else is.” She added: “It's just hard now to be a parent."

But kindergarten is not like preschool, where parents have open access. Lee said that can stress parents out and frequently manifests as distrust of the teacher.

“Parents need to give the teachers a break,” Lee said, “and let them do their thing, because that’s what they have been trained to do.”

Her training helps parents understand that they can be helpful to kids by “teaching them the basics,” such as putting on their own sweaters or putting a lunch box away rather than dropping it on the floor. These little skills make running a kindergarten classroom a much smoother task.

She opens her Kindergarten 101 session with a quick activity. Parents have to choose a crayon and write their name on a small piece of paper.

Lee slips in the instruction that the name should be written using the non-dominant hand. And then she watches as a ripple of uncertainty crosses parents' faces.

On completion of the task, Lee tells the parents, "For 10 whole seconds you felt what a kindergartener feels every single day, all day everyday in their life."