By Lauren O'Neill
From my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, morning after morning, she cried from the moment I woke her to the gut-wrenching second I had to pry her fingers from my body when the school bell sounded.
While those early days were painful, I reasoned that it was perfectly normal to have difficulty adjusting to a big public elementary school from a small, play-all-day preschool.
Weeks later, my daughter has stopped crying. But she continues to communicate her unhappiness.
"Mommy, I hate school."
“Mommy, this isn’t the school for me. I’m ready to go to another school now.”
"Mommy, I couldn’t wait for the day to be over.”
“Mommy, is tomorrow a weekend day? What about the next day? What about the next day?”
When I inform her that the school week consists of five days of school followed by two days off at home, she flings herself on the couch and lays there like a deflated helium balloon. At these moments, I almost wish she'd cry.
Should I stay or should I go?
These days, my husband and I have late-night talks:
Him: Most kids hate school. We hated school and we turned out fine.
Me: Why should kids hate school? They should love school.
Him: It's early in the school year. You have to let her get used to it.
Me: Why should she get used to something she hates?
Him: It's only kindergarten. Having a so-so kindergarten won't hurt her.
Me: Kindergarten really matters! If she hates kindergarten, she might hate school forever.
I know how I sound: like a bleeding-heart helicopter mom.
Underwhelmed from the get go
But here's my confession: I didn't like the school much from the start. When I twice toured the school, both times I came away with the same concerns: The bar seemed set low academically, and the kids didn't appear very inspired.
Now at the end of September, my daughter has seemed to accept her fate, but she still doesn't like school. I help out in her classroom a few hours a week, and I can see why. The teacher seems kind, but she keeps the kids sitting still on the carpet much of the time. They do a lot of worksheets. There aren't many opportunities for hands-on learning.
My conclusion at the end of this not-so-sweet school honeymoon? It's not bad at her school, but, well, it's boring. She's not excited about what she's learning and she's not getting much intellectual stimulation.
I find myself asking questions I can't answer: Should we wait it out and hope that things get better? What if it’s just this particular teacher, who isn’t terrible, but isn’t great? And what if next year she gets a superstar teacher? Is a “good enough” school good enough?
Or is it time to go back to the school district to search for a transfer?
Wisdom from the dismal science
Experts often point to research that suggests that moving schools midyear is a big mistake, but this research usually includes all sorts of reasons for a school move: job loss, divorce, foreclosure, parental convenience. But the research on parents who move their child midyear to a better school isn’t nearly as conclusive.
A study from the Journal of Public Economics, the largest of its kind in recent years, asks whether switching for better school quality measurably improves student outcomes and finds the answer to be inconclusive. A more recent study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that school mobility can be beneficial if the student is moving for academic reasons.
What is clear is high student turnover hurts schools. When a student leaves or a new student starts later in the year, it disrupts classrooms and makes it harder for teachers to establish continuity.
The parental gut check
There's research – and then there's your child. Jodi Goldberg, Director of Local Programs for GreatSchools, has worked with thousands of parents on choosing a school and the dangers involved in switching kids midyear. She recommends looking at the particulars of your child’s situation and not adhering to a general rule of thumb. The decision to move your child, Goldberg says, depends on your child – their age, their grade.
"There are kids who cry the whole year and who would cry no matter where they are. "But you know your child, you know her personality” Goldberg says. “Is she the kind of child to get used to things? Is she someone who is mostly happy? Is the school changing your child's personality for the worse?"
Yes, yes, and yes. My daughter warms to new people and environments slowly, but she's usually happy and enthusiastic. Since school started though, she's grown increasingly withdrawn.
"When you, the parent, walk into the school, don't just look at test scores, use your gut. If you're not happy [with the school], look for evidence. Ask 'Why am I not happy?'" Most of all, Goldberg advises, "Don't let someone tell you it's your imagination, that you're too picky. If you feel something, it's there... If you find a [better] great school right now, go for it."
So I'm going to make the trip to the district office. I'll put in a new application. Until then, we'll wait and watch. However things turn out this year, Goldberg offered one reassurance: "This one thing is not going to spoil her for life."