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Everything I thought I knew about kindergarten, I was wrong

One of the most important lessons I learned last school year was the benefit of establishing a calm and loving relationship with my students so learning could be easier and faster.

A kindergartner's drawing given to Nicola Kelley Hyser on her last day at school.
Courtesy of Nicola Kelley Hyser

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published his New York Times best-seller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Its wisdom resonated with the masses, and it remained on best-selling lists for nearly two years. My daughters attended half-day kindergarten in the ’80s, and they learned – as I had decades before them – about sharing, playing fair, cleaning up after themselves and painting favorite scenes to proudly show Mom and Dad.

Most kindergarten programs were, until recently, more social and less academic from what I witnessed last school year as a literacy tutor for full-day kindergarteners in St. Paul. One person’s reaction to my position says a lot: “Literacy tutoring? How much literacy tutoring can you do in kindergarten?!”

However, in the past several decades, research has stressed the importance of universal early childhood education – preschool and kindergarten – for long-term academic achievement and greater economic success after high school. In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed growing future workforces with universal preschool. In 2014, however, only 15 states plus the District of Columbia mandated kindergarten attendance. Some programs are half-day; some are full-day. In Minnesota, full-day kindergarten funding has only been available to school districts and charter schools since the 2014-2015 school year.

I signed up with Experience Corps – AARP for the 2015-16 public school year, and I knew the focus was on K- to third-graders in schools of greatest need: urban schools with a high percentage of minority students who live in poverty and whose test scores – particularly math and reading scores – may be 25 points lower than integrated schools.

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This is what’s known as the “achievement gap.” Educational studies have documented that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than children who read proficiently by that time. When poverty is an issue, a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time compared with skillful, wealthier peers. The focus on K- to third-graders is crucial because students are learning to read in those first grades, and afterwards they are using their reading skills to learn and advance in other subjects.

My immediate goal was to help these younger students advance in their basic reading skills so they would want to continue to succeed … the ultimate goals being high school graduation, getting a decent-paying job and going on to higher education if they aspire to that. According to a 2012 “Frontline” report, the average high school dropout may earn an annual income of $20,241, a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree. Unemployment rates are around 12 percent for high school dropouts, and incarceration rates are 63 times higher for them than for college graduates. 

What I’ve learned in 21st-century kindergarten

I requested to be placed at Obama Elementary and with a first-year teacher and her class of 20 kindergarteners. By the end of a kindergarten year, according to St. Paul Public School (SPPS) District standards, students are expected to know and write their ABCs, to know 20 letter sounds and 44 letters/phonemes (which includes blends, such as “sh” and “th”) and at least 10 words from the list of 100 common sight words. On the range of kindergarten-level books, with A-level being the lowest, they work toward reading D-level books. Sight words – such as “go,” “the,” “and” – are common words that reappear frequently on pages of simpler to more complex text accompanied by colorful, detailed illustrations, that range from straightforward to less obvious and require more critical-thinking skills.

Comprehending the goals and the reading material wasn’t difficult. Being a kindergarten tutor should be a snap, right? No. Not so easy. Ninety-five percent of Obama’s approximately 460 students come from low-income families. Over 50 years of research confirms that the children of lower-income parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than their more affluent peers. Educational studies confirm that students’ oral skills are directly linked to their reading skills. Kindergarteners are expected to start school with proficient oral language ability and the background/context knowledge associated with that.

By age 3, children growing up in poor neighborhoods or from lower-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer words than more privileged children. Consequently, 5-year-old children of lower socio-economic status score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.

Early on, my teacher told me one of the most important things I could do to improve our students’ literacy skills was to engage them in conversation, so we often discussed – among other things – why they were upset with a certain friend, what they did with their families over the weekend, what they hoped they were having for lunch and, of course, the books we read together, and connecting those stories with their experiences. Eating lunch with them (my choice) gave me more opportunity to connect with them – to have some fun teaching moments aside from the literacy work we were doing.

Children wrestling with trauma

One of the most important lessons I learned last school year was the benefit of establishing a calm and loving relationship with my students so learning could be easier and faster. Some, perhaps many of my students, were wrestling with emotional and/or physical trauma because of neglect and/or domestic violence in their homes. “Toxic stress,” which is especially high in low-income homes, undermines the children’s mental health and intellectual development, which often leads to behavior problems.

Nicola Kelley Hyser
Nicola Kelley Hyser

It didn’t take me long to learn that literacy – basic reading skills – would take a backseat to mentoring/nurturing them so they could better navigate through emotional minefields and voice their thoughts and feelings … ultimately, so they could actually think clear-headedly about the string of 26 letters before them, learn to legibly write their names and three-letter words, and muster the strength to persist in reading whole sentences by painstakingly sounding out many unfamiliar words while not getting discouraged by their mistakes. I often encouraged them by saying, “Hey, we all make mistakes. I still don’t know how to pronounce some words. This is how everyone learns.” 

Nearly 100 percent of them began the school year unprepared for what they were expected to learn. BUT, 100 percent of them were – when they weren’t acting out in class or emotionally shut down because of the trauma in their personal lives – loving and eager to learn, and that is what I appreciated most and focused on.

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Over the course of the school year, our class of 20 dwindled to 14 because six students moved out of the district. In the fall of 2015, only one student in “my” class was reading books in the A – D range; she was reading C-level books at the beginning and “graduated” to E-level books. Three students advanced to reading at A-level; four to B-level; and two to C-level. Four ended the year reading below A-level, but they advanced from where they had started at the beginning of the year. All knew their letters and sounds; in fact, they exceeded those goals. Eleven of 14 students met the goal of knowing at least 10 words from the list of most common 100 sight words. All passed onto first grade, and they were excited and proud about it. And whether they realized or not, they grew emotionally. Their more mature behavior – which led to academic growth – was a testimony to that. 

Universal pre-K

As a result of what I’ve learned this past school year, I firmly believe the greatest gains in education and – more broadly – for communities across Minnesota and the entire country will happen more quickly if the emphasis is on providing quality early childhood education. Although clear evidence supporting universal pre-kindergarten is still out, Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton has made education – in particular, closing the achievement gap – his signature issue since becoming governor in 2011. In 2015, the House and Senate passed a bill providing an additional $400 million for the E-12 system. A fair number of people believe a substantial portion of the budget surplus (in February, a projected $900 million) should be committed to expanding access to pre-K for Minnesota’s most at-risk learners. Still, many others – including Dayton – believe universal pre-K should be the norm.

Universal preschool can drive changes in kindergarten and elementary classrooms. When all or most children enter kindergarten with the benefits of quality pre-K education, kindergarten and elementary teachers can create curriculum and alter their teaching practices to build on what they know children learned in preschool – the goal being to accelerate children’s elementary school learning. In fact, Boston, Massachusetts has one of the most successful pre-K programs in the country and has felt the positive effects of a quality pre-K program “percolating up” to kindergarten and beyond.

The benefits of pre-K can be lost when only some children attend preschool. Instead of building on preschool gains, kindergarten teachers currently must focus on catching up children who did not attend. If the primary goal in K- to third-grade education is to increase the numbers of students reading on grade level by third grade, then quality universal pre-K for 4-year-olds can only improve on the likelihood of that goal being achieved. In 2015, Education Minnesota – a union representing pre-K to grade-12 teachers, school support staff and higher education faculty – issued a report from a committee of experienced early childhood and kindergarten teachers from across Minnesota that outlined the case for high-quality universal pre-K: 

Children who participate in pre-K see educational advantages right from the beginning – quantifiable improvements in reading and math scores to be sure – but also more fundamental and lasting effects such as higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of teen pregnancy, higher income levels, and more stability in their family lives. … The early interventions result in fewer students in need of special education services, for example. The longer-term benefits include an increased tax base, lower crime rates, lower divorce rates and reduced social service costs. … It simply makes good economic sense.

‘Three Little Pigs’ and the value of sharing

Think back. When our teachers and parents read “The Three Little Pigs” to us kindergarteners, it was obvious then that the smarter pig was the one who built his house with bricks. We easily comprehended it was going to take a lot more than a strong wind to knock it down. In fact, the best houses – from the bottom up – are constructed by master builders who use top-grade materials so they can withstand the elements and last hundreds of years. Knowing that sticks and straw are not the best building materials, it’s easy to grasp that creating successful lives and communities should begin by laying strong educational foundations with quality teachers, materials and programs, from the bottom up – beginning with preschool – and building on those years.

In “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” Fulghum wrote:

Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. … And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.

My first year with Experience Corp – AARP at Obama Elementary was one of the best years of my life. I had the opportunity to build strong relationships with my kindergarteners and witness the joy and pride on their faces when they realized how much they’d grown as readers. It brought tears to my eyes and filled my own heart with love, pride and joy. This next school year, I intend to tutor the four students who were not reading at A-level when they graduated kindergarten. I have a bond with them, and I believe it will guarantee greater growth.

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“Share everything,” Fulghum wrote. I encourage you to become a tutor/mentor this next school year. Check your calendars and this site: Experience Corps – AARP. Share your time and talents, “fill important places” and change the lives of young students who are waiting to share their enthusiasm for learning with you.

Nicola Kelley Hyser is a freelance writer and editor, living in St. Paul.


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