Care and Feeding

Please Explain the Purpose of Online Learning for Kindergartners

Why are we doing this?

A girl with her head leaning against her hand looks at her laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Getting my kindergartner to participate in online school is like pulling teeth. Her teachers are fantastic and working hard, but a videoconference call with 5- and 6-year-olds would be frustrating even if the technology worked perfectly, and it definitely does not. Then there are the other videos and worksheets, all of which my daughter seems to hate. She uses up the whole house’s emotional reserves just to complete her work.

So, I guess my question is: What is the point of this—of all of this? What is it we should be aiming for? My feeling was that a lot of kindergarten is about learning how to function in a classroom and society—interacting with others, expressing yourself, learning rules and routines, etc.—with learning material as a secondary goal, which makes it feel like we’re all working way too hard on something that isn’t of primary importance. Is that right?

Should we be focusing on getting her to actually complete assignments and make sure she can sort words into phonics families and find three ways to solve a math word problem, or are there other skills that are more important that we should work on? And if it’s the social skills, what can we do in lockdown?

—Searching for Answers

Dear Searching,

I’m not a kindergarten teacher, but I married one. In fairness, my wife taught kindergarten for only one year before moving on to third grade, but I also consulted several other kindergarten teachers about your question and their responses are unanimous, and aligned with my own instincts.

You are correct. Much of kindergarten is spent learning to follow rules, cooperate and collaborate with peers, and function as a part of a larger group, and much of that cannot be realistically accomplished with distance learning.

It’s also not surprising that your daughter is not responding well to videoconference calls. This technology was not built for a 5- or 6-year old child. We can only expect so much from our kindergartners in this regard. With this in mind, I would not obsess over work completion. Using up the household emotional reserves—particularly at this time in history—for the sake of a phonics lesson or a few word problems makes no sense.

I would focus on a few key things:

• Read to your child. Help her fall in love with stories and books and the written word.

• Help her develop her fine motor skills by drawing, coloring, painting, sculpting, completing jigsaw puzzles, and the like. Kitchen tools are also fantastic for practicing fine motor skills. Create games where your daughter uses tongs, spoons, spatulas, and the like to move things around a room. The development of fine motor skills is a huge part of kindergarten learning, and this can absolutely be done at home.

• Find areas where she wants to learn. Maybe she can help you cook dinner. Perhaps she’d like to take photographs. Teach her to grow a small garden. Find science experiments that interest her. Launch a small business selling something that she can create. I would try to find ways to keep her actively learning, even if that learning has nothing to do with traditional academics.

As for socialization, that might not be possible at this time. Older children can connect with friends through videoconferencing, but kindergartners will find this much more difficult. But this is also a time to strengthen your own relationship with your child. Replacing the time she spent with peers with time spent with you is not a bad way to make the best of this less-than-ideal situation.

The good news is that every kindergarten student in the country is also missing out on socialization opportunities, so while this cohort might fall behind, they are falling behind together.

Also, kids are exceptionally resilient. It’s going to be OK. There is no need to increase stress levels in the home during a pandemic for the sake of completing every academic assignment sent your way. Taking care of the physical and mental well-being of everyone in the home should be your paramount concern at this time.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Slate needs your support right now. Sign up for Slate Plus to keep reading the advice you crave every week.

I am in charge of technology for a private school. With online distance learning in place, teachers are regularly telling me that they tell their students false things I can do to monitor them. Most of these are lies, and even the few things that are not lies I am not doing. I know they need ways to motivate their students or hold them accountable and that they’re just doing the best they can without the normal tools they have for classroom management. But it makes me uncomfortable to know that I’m being made into a Big Brother figure by my colleagues, whom I need to work with and support. What should I do?

—Not the Great and Powerful Oz

Dear Not the Great and Powerful Oz,

I have to admit I chuckled a little at this. I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures.

You say the teachers are lying—is it possible they are just misinformed? I work in a large school district that definitely has some Big Brother capabilities. You might clarify how exactly you can (and cannot) support teachers with distance learning. However, I get the impression that the teachers know they’re fibbing, and I understand why you feel uncomfortable. You certainly don’t have to maintain this charade if a student or parent asks about how you are monitoring them online.

Beyond that, I’d let this one go. Everyone is so stressed out right now, and summer vacation is near. Besides, there’s a strong possibility this will backfire on the teachers. Kids have a tendency to sniff out empty threats, particularly when technology is involved. I bet they already know what they can get away with.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

We are a military family who will be transitioning to retirement soon. We currently live in a location we wouldn’t have chosen if the military hadn’t sent us, and we all, aside from my oldest child, want to move somewhere else for retirement. We have lived here for a few years (we moved in the middle of our oldest child’s middle school years), and she is currently a sophomore. She loves her school, is doing well academically, has a great group of friends here, and keeps in touch with friends from past duty stations. She is in a great school that is very diverse and academically challenging, and is the best nonprivate school in our state. (It is also a selective admissions school.)

We have a long list of reasons we don’t like our current location, and the deck is stacked in favor of moving, especially when considering the location of the best jobs in our fields and the location of our families. I just want to ensure we are not destroying her life academically by moving to a different state in the middle of high school. We are not springing this on her, and have discussed our many reasons with her over the years even as she has come to love the area. I think she is holding out hope that we might change our minds and stay but has come to accept that we will most likely move. Thanks for any advice you might offer.

—Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Dear SWSoSWG,

You will not destroy her life academically by moving to a different state. You said she’s currently doing well—I can’t imagine that she’d suddenly take an academic nosedive. She’s also not new to this kind of transition. You moved when she was in middle school (which is in many ways harder than moving in high school), and she probably developed some skills that will serve her well. Ask her what she thought made that shift work so well.

I think the transition that will likely be more difficult is the social one. I’m glad you’re not springing the idea of a move on her. Once you’ve finalized your decision—and I would do that sooner rather than later—make it clear to her. Assuming you do decide to move, give her ample time to accept this new reality. Acknowledge and validate her anger, disappointment, grief, etc. Let her know that you know this is hard on her. Tell her you know it sucks.

You can highlight the pros of the move—attractions of the area, vicinity of extended family, opportunity to meet new people—but don’t expect them to erase the cons. They won’t. She’s going to be bummed, probably for a long time.

The only thing I can imagine will help is giving her a choice whenever you can. Does she have any say in where you move within that region? What kind of house you buy or rent? Which bedroom she gets? Whether you get a new pet after you’re settled? What school she will go to?

Her life is being upended. Allow her to control any aspect of her life that you can.

Congratulations on your retirement, and best of luck with the move!

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

My 8-year-old son is in second grade. His teacher gave them an assignment this week to make an African mask, and provided videos and pictures of real masks for inspiration. They were allowed to make it out of whatever materials they wanted, and they were supposed to film and share a video of them wearing the mask and talking about it. Since my son is white, I felt very uncomfortable about this.

My son goes to a school that is about 40 percent black, 40 percent white, and 20 percent other races. As such, I expect they will learn about a lot of different cultures, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to me for a white student to make one of these masks or wear it. I wanted to discuss it with the teacher, but as she is black herself, I decided that didn’t seem appropriate. I did talk to a few of the other black parents whom we know whose children are in the same class, and they did not see an issue with it.

I didn’t want him to do it, but I lost out to my wife and son on the matter when I couldn’t find anyone to take my side. We compromised in that he couldn’t use any dark colors, no blacks or browns, and it could not resemble any apes or monkeys. (Many of the examples the teacher provided were this type of mask.) I don’t know if that made things any better, but it made me feel at least somewhat less uncomfortable with the situation.

Am I in the wrong here? And if not, how can I walk this line in the future of being the white parent speaking to voices of color about my discomfort in these situations? This is isn’t the first time we’ve had an issue like this, and I suspect it won’t be the last. We live in a very diverse area and have encountered similar issues before, especially in school. Or should I just shut up about it next time?

—Worrisome White Dad

Hey WWD,

I see where you are coming from. Too often we hear stories of teachers with little cultural competency instructing classes of children to perform plays based in the days of slavery or re-create scenes of pilgrims and indigenous Americans. Teaching kids about race is complex stuff—I’m black myself, and even I struggle with exactly the right notes to hit when discussing it with my class. The short answer is that there is no perfect solution, or right position. However, while I understand your sensitivity to this issue, I’d defer to the judgment of the community that you’re trying to respect. While there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, especially in schools, this project seems to me like the latter.

I’d recommend against discouraging your son’s participation. Learning about different cultures through art is a great way to grow an appreciation for different walks of life, as long as the person guiding the instruction has the cultural competency to facilitate it effectively. Given the reaction to the assignment from your friends who are black, it sounds like the teacher was successful on this front. It is also clear that you are very uncomfortable with this assignment, and that’s OK too. I think all you can do is be clear about your feelings with your family and your son’s teacher. Ultimately, however, I would trust the teachers’ judgment as the educational expert.

Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

More Advice From Slate

Preschool and kindergarten registration are coming up and I am not sure what to do with my son. My son is 4, and he will turn 5 on Aug. 17. The cutoff for school is Sept. 1, and we are debating whether he should go to kindergarten or wait. What should we do?