By Meika Rouda
There is a new California mandate that children must be five by September 1st in order to start kindergarten. Since many kids, including my son, have birthdays after the cut-off date but before the end of the year, the state has implemented Transitional Kindergarten. It is a modified program for 4-year-olds, or the first of a two-year kindergarten program. I just found out about it a few weeks ago; apparently it is under wraps. I don’t think the school districts quite know how to handle this new grade and 4-year-olds could stay at their preschools instead of filling up the elementary school early but when I heard our local school was offering TK, I went ahead and signed him up. There were two main factors in my decision; one is cost. Preschool is expensive and TK is free so that is an easy choice. And the second is that it allowed us the opportunity to check out our local public school before kindergarten, so if it was horrible and he hated it, we could still apply for kindergarten at a private school. Win-win in my book.
School started a few days later and I had little time to prep my son about his new school or the fact that none of his friends from preschool would be there. On the first day of school, he was excited, his teacher was a pro, 28 years’ teaching kindergarten at this school and a warm man who can hold his own with 4-year-olds. My son didn’t cry when I said goodbye but I did. He was in a big kids’ school, a place where he would experience so many things, where he would be learning who he is and making decisions, where no one really is looking out for him in the same way.
The class is mostly boys, and large with 21 students. While preschool was a nurturing environment, TK is real school. There are bells that ring when class begins, and an expectation for a quiet, calm classroom. While preschool was entirely play-based learning, TK is more structured learning. After a few short weeks, my son is spelling his name and recognizing all numbers, something he struggled with at preschool. The pride he shows in knowing these things is immense and I realize he needs the challenge, the expectation that he will stretch his mind and keep up with other students. He has also made several new friends, his two closest friends ironically are also adopted, something they are too young to know or understand but it is as if a silent radar has gone off in their souls and they are attracted to each other. They were bonded from day one.
And on the weekends after school is over, he tends to fall apart. It is as if holding it together at school, learning and making his way, is so exhausting that he reverts to old behaviors I thought were long gone. Hitting when he gets frustrated, yelling at me and my husband when he doesn’t get his way, not listening at all when we ask him to do things. And it is frustrating for us. But I also realize he is under a huge transition, he has been thrust into a place of order, where he doesn’t get his way, where he has to listen, where he has to deliver. At home, in his safe place, he just wants to fall apart.
I wonder as I watch him adjust what kind of person he will be. Will he like school, be popular or sporty, be a boy the girls like or one they don’t, be a show-off in class or studious. Here are character traits just beginning to form now and, like life, he is making decisions about who he is. I am grateful he is an adaptable child, one who makes friends easily and takes things as they come. As parents all we can do is help shepherd these little souls and hope for the best, that life will be kind, and generous, that good fortune will follow our children, that they will have the tools to face life with confidence. And that is what transitional kindergarten has taught me: that we all transition all the time in life, being open and adaptable is the key. And that sometimes kindergarten is actually harder on the parent than it is on the kids.