December’s Teacher’s Corner Column: Are We Expecting Too Much, Too Soon?

Teacher’s Corner is a monthly newsletter from eNotes just for teachers. In it, experienced educator and eNotes contributor Susan Hurn shares her tips, tricks, and insight into the world of teaching. Check out this month’s Teacher’s Corner column below, or sign up to receive the complete newsletter in your inbox at

I recently read an article by Laura Katan in which she shares an anecdote I keep thinking about. At a fair, Katan saw a ten-year-old boy and his mom pass a massage vendor, and she heard the mother ask her son, “Do you want a massage? It may relax you.” Katan recalls she was “incredulous” as she overheard the comment. “Since when do 10-year-olds need to relax?” she asks. Well, apparently now. In fact, there seems to be a lot of kids who need to relax, and most of them are in our classrooms.  

A growing body of research indicates that we are demanding too much of kids, too soon. In the name of “rigor” and in the pursuit of high scores on standardized tests, we’re often getting ahead of their natural growth and development—and by “we,” I don’t mean teachers. Teachers know how the fallout from too much, too soon impedes learning, but their judgment rarely influences educational policy and administrative mandates.

Classroom teachers, however, aren’t the only ones who are ringing alarm bells. According to the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit that advocates for children, pushing kids too far, too fast is evident now even in kindergarten curriculums. Consider this passage from Crisis in the Kindergarten, a 2009 report released by the Alliance:

Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration . . . . Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school.

A friend of mine summed it up succinctly: “The kids don’t get to color anymore.” Here’s the full report, “Crisis in the Kindergarten.” In “Reimagining Kindergarten,” Elizabeth Graue raises the same concerns and arrives at the same conclusions. “Kindergarten is now built on a model of content,” she writes, “rather than on the needs of children.” Read her article at this link.

So, kindergarten has become first grade, first-graders are now expected to read, second grade focuses on third-grade testing, and to make more time for instruction in chasing test scores, recess has been eliminated in many elementary schools. One encouraging development, however, is that the push to get rid of recess is losing steam. This report from Scholastic on how “recess makes kids smarter” offers an update.

Middle school and high school? Lots of middle schoolers are taking classes once reserved for the high school curriculum, and many high school kids are taking so many Dual Credit and AP courses that essentially they are going to college before graduating. When you go to college in high school, when do you go to high school? And what is the goal here? To have kids with Ph.D.’s by the time they’re twenty-two? Seriously! When can kids be kids and teenagers teens? It’s no wonder the mom back at the fair offered to buy her ten-year-old a massage to alleviate his stress!

Many students are developmentally mature enough to do fine and even excel when pushed to the max in the classroom. Many, however, are not, and even though they can’t articulate that they’re overwhelmed, they express it—in the inability to concentrate or stay on task, in rowdy behavior or quiet withdrawal, and in passive-aggressive self-defense. Some kids simply shut down and refuse to engage until prompted, and prompted, and finally reprimanded. What appears to be a discipline problem is often a manifestation of academic demands getting ahead of natural growth and development. For instance, why do some kids persist in taking their mechanical pencils apart and playing with the pieces? Just to drive their teachers crazy? Probably not.

Things being what they are right now, what can be done in the classroom to alleviate students’ stress? Here are a few suggestions:

  • On the board, list what will be done in class; the unknown can be scary.
  • Give kids “brain breaks,” a time-out to process information; let them talk it over with a partner, write a brief response, or sketch a simple picture, chart, or graph.
  • Incorporate some humor in lessons, activities, and tests. Cartoons are fun and can be subject-appropriate.
  • Allow for movement and fidgeting; give kids hands-on activities with things to hold and manipulate; let them build something or create a physical product.
  • Build in transition time between lessons rather than racing from one to another.
  • Use some activities that call for students to visualize something they enjoy or find restful.
  • Eliminate extraneous noise, and play quiet background music during work time. Lots of kids are not used to silence, and it makes them uncomfortable.
  • Beat the system! Design activities you know are good for your students, and then work backwards to find some standards they meet.

For more tips, check out and “5 Easy Ways to Reduce Student Stress in the Classroom” at

And here’s a suggestion to relieve your own stress. Forget about school and have a great winter break! Happy Holidays!