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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: How Stressing Preschoolers and Kindergarteners Could Lead to Mental Health Problems

There has been a pushdown of academic expectations for years, and Americans should be asking how much stress this causes all students, especially our youngest learners. If a child struggles in preschool or kindergarten, it might be due to pressure.

Why force children to rush through preschool and kindergarten to learn skills that never would have been considered at this age group, especially knowing that the same students, even those who may learn such skills early, will experience unnecessary stress and anxiety? Or students may feel like they have failed because, despite developing typically, they were led to believe early on that they were behind.

Some of this started with the twenty-two-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB), where, with heavy phonics with Reading First, all children were supposed to be reading by 2014. That never happened, although teachers at this time changed kindergarten expectations dramatically.

Race to the Top and Common Core Standards in kindergarten were deemed inappropriate by many early childhood specialists. Still, the standards, despite poor reviews, have mostly remained in place with the idea that increasing stricter requirements for children, especially if they’re poor or have disabilities, means they will catch up with their wealthier and non-disabled peers who may have also faced academic pressure.

Without question, some students will arrive at preschool and kindergarten reading or doing advanced academic tasks. Still, to make this the norm, to drive all children, who are likely developing well but slower, the school should not become a pressure cooker with unreasonable demands.

This increasing push to make all students learn the material from later grades earlier, especially in preschools and kindergartens, has often resulted, especially in underfunded schools, in eliminating or reducing unstructured play, recess, music, science, opportunities for children to socialize, and more.

Mental Health Problems Due to the Early Learning Stress 

Concurrently with this academic drive for children to achieve, there’s an increasing uptick in stress and anxiety in children. This has been understood for years.

  • In 1988, Lorrie A. Shepard and Mary Lee Smith in Escalating Academic Demand in Kindergarten: Counterproductive Policies described schools screening and holding kindergarteners back due to rigid high proficiency standards. Children who appeared to do better had their individualized needs met and teachers recognized that that they learned at different rates.
  • The blog Bored Teachers recently referenced the above study: Narrow emphasis on isolated reading and numeracy skills is detrimental even to the children who succeed and is especially harmful to children labeled as failures…academic demands in kindergarten and first grade are considerably higher today than 20 years ago and continue to escalate.
  • In 1990, researchers considered the academic stress placed on preschoolers in Academic Environments in Preschool: Do They Pressure or Challenge Young Children. The results suggest no academic advantages for children from highly academic environments, and potential disadvantages in creative expression (measured as originality) and emotional well-being (measured as test anxiety and attitudes toward school).
  • The Alliance for Childhood produced a report in 2009 Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School by Edward Miller and Joan Almon. The Foreword was by David Elkind who wrote the popular The Hurried Child: Growing Up too Fast too Soon. In the report they examine nine studies concerned about the changing nature of kindergarten, and the loss of play. They warn about replacing what had become developmentally accepted protocol for young children with heavy prescriptive curricula, assessments and test preparation, and a strong emphasis on academic skill building.
  • In 2015, The Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years publish Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose. They describe many reasons why Common Core is poorly constructed especially due to the ignoring of play and that they falsely imply that having children achieve these standards will overcome the impact of poverty on development and learning, and will create equal educational opportunity for all children. 
  • Valerie Strauss in a 2015 Washington Post Answer Sheet report reviewed Stephen Carmarata’s book called The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You. Carmarata notes that Many schools force too much material onto the normally (and naturally) developing mind of young children and may inadvertently push children—especially boys—into looking like they have ADHD when they might not.
  • In 2016, University of Virginia researchers Bassok, Latham, and Rorem published Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? They raise concerns about the transformation of kindergarten, showing that teachers in 2010 were far less likely to indicate that their classroom included various activity centers, including art areas, dramatic play areas, science areas, or water/sand tables. These trends are consistent with the possibility that a heightened focus on literacy and math instruction crowded out coverage of other subjects. Also, in 2010, roughly 30% of public school kindergarten teachers reported using standardized tests at least once a month.
  • On October 11, 2022, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, a group of doctors, recommended screening children as young as eight for major depressive disorder (MDD). How do eight-year-olds wind up depressed? Depression they say could show up with functional impairments in school performance, but couldn’t pressure in early grades affect how a child feels?
  • In the recent Science Daily March 9, 2023 report, ‘All Work, No Independent Play’ Cause of Children’s Declining Mental Health, Says Study, Florida Atlantic University addresses findings in the Journal of Pediatrics stating: The researchers suggest the increase in school time and pressure to achieve over decades may have impacted mental health not just by detracting from time and opportunity for independent activities but also because fear of academic failure, or fear of insufficient achievement, is a direct source of distress.
  • Derek Thompson’s recent 2023 report in The Atlantic: We’re Missing a Key Driver of Teen Anxiety. Thompson cites a 2022 paper by professors at Korea University Dirk Bethmann and Robert Rudolf, showing that teens, when they’ve faced rigor early on and a push towards perfectionism, lose critical leisure time, sleep, and subjective well-being.

It’s time for early childhood specialists, educators, and parents to ask themselves whether they’re pushing children too hard due to questionable standards, to expect the same achievement for all children at the same time. Children should be individually evaluated by their teachers and given a well-rounded curriculum that is challenging but kind and which includes play.

Ask whether the high-stakes expectations today will affect a child’s mental health later. Ask, why the rush?

References and Additional Blog Reports.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hyson, M.C. & Rescorla, L. (1990) Academic Environments in Preschool: Do They Pressure or Challenge Young Children, Early Education and Development, 1:6, 401-423, DOI: 10.1207/s15566935eed0106_1

Strauss, V. (2015, August 17). Why pushing kids to learn too much too soon is counterproductive. The Washington Post. Retrieved from…;

Academic Preschools: Too Much Too Soon?

High-Pressure Preschools: How Much is Too Much?

Pressure in Preschools

Setting Children Up to Hate Reading

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...