Does Kindergarten Need Cops?

  • Temper tantrums are nothing new in kindergarten and first grade, but the behavior of a 6-year-old girl this fall at a school in Fort Worth, Texas, had even the most experienced staff members wanting to run for cover. Asked to put a toy away, the youngster began to scream. Told to calm down, she knocked over her desk and crawled under the teacher's desk, kicking it and dumping out the contents of the drawers. Then things really began to deteriorate. Still shrieking, the child stood up and began hurling books at her terrified classmates, who had to be ushered from the room to safety.

    Just a bad day at school? More like a bad season. The desk-dumping incident followed scores of other outrageous acts by some of the youngest Fort Worth students at schools across the district. Among them: a 6-year-old who told his teacher to "shut up, bitch," a first-grader whose fits of anger ended with his peeling off his clothes and throwing them at the school psychologist, and hysterical kindergartners who bit teachers so hard they left tooth marks.

    "I'm clearly seeing an increasing number of kindergartners and first-graders coming to our attention for aggressive behavior," says Michael Parker, program director of psychological services at the Fort Worth Independent School District, which serves 80,000 students. The incidents have occurred not only in low-income urban schools but in middle-class areas as well. Says Parker: "We're talking about serious talking back to teachers, profanity, even biting, kicking and hitting adults, and we're seeing it in 5-year-olds." And these are not the kids who have been formally labeled emotionally disturbed, says Nekedria Clark, who works in Parker's department. "We have our E.D. kids, and then we have our b-a-d kids."

    The alarming trend has been confirmed by Partnership for Children, a local child-advocacy group that has just completed a survey of child-care centers, elementary schools and pediatricians throughout Tarrant County, which includes Forth Worth and suburban Arlington. The final report is due out in January, but a preliminary version obtained by Time shows that 93% of the 39 schools that responded to the survey said kindergartners today have "more emotional and behavioral problems" than were seen five years ago. More than half the day-care centers said "incidents of rage and anger" had increased over the past three years. "We're talking about children—a 3-year-old in one instance—who will take a fork and stab another child in the forehead. We're talking about a wide range of explosive behaviors, and it's a growing problem," says John Ross, who oversaw the survey.

    Is Tarrant County a unique hotbed of precocious delinquency? Not at all, says Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. Across the country, he says, "violence is getting younger and younger." In the past five years, Stephens says, an increasing number of school districts in the U.S. have instituted special elementary schools for disruptive youngsters. "Initially, it was high schools that created these schools, then middle schools. Now it's elementary. Who would have thought years ago that this would be happening?" he asks.

    Despite the proliferation of such programs, few school districts will admit to a violence problem—and certainly not at the kindergarten level. Philadelphia is a rare exception. "We aggressively report serious incidents regardless of the age of the child," says Paul Vallas, ceo of Philadelphia's schools, which serve 214,000 students. This year the largely poor urban district has already had 19 reports of weapons possession and 42 assaults by kids in kindergarten or first grade. Last year at the McDaniel elementary school alone, there were 21 assaults in the first two months of school, including one by a kindergartner who punched a pregnant teacher in the belly. Vallas adopted a get-tough policy and suspended 33 kindergarten students in the first six weeks of last year, up from just one in the same period the year before, earning him local notoriety as a "kindergarten cop." This year he has chosen instead to send the youngest offenders to "accommodation" rooms to cool down and learn to behave.

    Not every school district in America is besieged by kamikaze kindergartners, but those who see a problem believe they are witnessing the result of a number of social trends that have come together in a most unfortunate way. Many cite economic stress, which has parents working longer hours than ever before, kids spending more time in day care and everyone coming home too exhausted to engage in the kind of relationships that build social skills. "Kids aren't getting enough lap time," says Karen Bentley, a seasoned elementary school administrator in Miami, who sees increased aggression in young students.

    In addition, many educators worry about rising academic pressure in kindergarten and first grade in anticipation of the yearly tests demanded by the No Child Left Behind Act. In Texas, which has led the nation in embracing such tests, most kindergartens now go the full day, yet some have eliminated recess or limited it to 15 minutes a day. "It's a mistake to focus exclusively on academic readiness," says Stephen Hinshaw, chair-elect of the psychology department at University of California, Berkeley. "Even more vital than early reading," he says, "is the learning of play skills, which form the foundation of cognitive skills." Hinshaw points out that in Europe, kids often aren't taught to read until age 7. Insisting that they read at 5, he says, "puts undue pressure on a child."

    Hinshaw and other experts on child behavior also point out that aggressive behavior in children has been irrefutably linked to exposure to violence on TV and in movies, video games and other media. "Dozens of studies have shown this link. Probably hundreds," says psychologist Jerome Singer, co-director of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center. "The size of the effect is almost as strong as the relationship between smoking and cancer."

    There is little doubt that very young children are watching loads of TV before they even reach kindergarten. In October the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a survey of 1,065 parents with children ages 6 months to 6 years. The stunning finding is that 43% of the kids age 2 and younger watched TV on a typical day and that 26% had a TV in their room. The median amount of time spent watching: two hours a day.

    And that's two hours a day that are not spent doing what toddlers most need to do: interacting with people who love them and can teach them how to behave. Parker, in Fort Worth, blames this lack of socialization at home more than anything else for the wild behavior he's seeing in his district's youngest students. He recounts, for example, that the mother of an obstreperous 4-year-old told him the child has no formal mealtimes and eats whenever he wants. "If you don't have to sit down at a dinner table and stay there, how are you going to learn to sit in a seat at school and finish an assignment?" Parker wonders. Kids who are chronologically 6 years old are showing up in school with "emotional experience you would expect of a 3-year-old," says Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who works with the nonprofit group ChildTrauma Academy, based in Houston. "Imagine a child with the terrible twos in a 6-year-old body. It's a huge problem in education and mental-health circles." This "relational poverty," he says, affects even the wealthiest kids.

    On the front lines in Philadelphia and Fort Worth, schools are trying to teach kids what they have failed to learn at home. Philadelphia has extensive anti-bullying and character-education programs. It has Saturday counseling for troublemakers and truants, and requires parents to attend. This year it has extended the program to kids in kindergarten through fourth grade. For now, the Fort Worth district is working mainly with individual students and their parents. But sadly, it, along with districts throughout Texas, is also training more and more teachers how to physically restrain a furious, flailing 5-year-old.

    —Reported by Cathy Booth Thomas/Fort Worth, Simon Crittle/New York and Polly Forster/Portland