|Ben (far left) working hard to follow coach's lead during soccer practice.|
There are only five total players on Ben’s team. Well, six, counting the little boy on the sidelines who refuses to leave his mom’s side. Most of the players are between one to two years younger than Ben. We asked to keep Ben in the younger league this year rather than moving him up, and it appears to be the right decision. Ben is developmentally on par with his peers, in both skill level and maturity.
Overall, this season is going much smoother for him, even though he had an amazing coach last season. As I watch Ben performing the practice drills with the team, I marvel at how far he has come. He listens to his coach. He follows coach’s directions, weaving the ball between the cones before kicking the ball triumphantly into the goal. As I think back to last season, when he would kick the cones over and kick and miss the ball as frequently as he made contact, I recognized tremendous growth. As with many things in life for Ben, it takes him longer to master a skill or a milestone then the “average” child, but he always gets there in his own time.
This season, he is feeling confident because he knows what he is doing. Ben understands that the point of soccer is to kick the ball in the goal, and each time the ball swishes in the net, he gleefully exclaims, “1 point…2 points…3 points!”
As the game begins, Ben runs hard to keep up with the other players. He still holds back and doesn’t like to get in too close to the cluster of little bodies that swarm around the ball, but he stays much closer to the action then last year. Today, for the first time, he even kicks the ball in the goal. The greater the energy of the crowd, the more charged he becomes. As the crowd cheers, Ben’s body seems to become charged with electricity, and he leaps in the air, arms flailing wildly about.
I notice that Ben’s arm flapping and other stimming (self-stimulatory) behaviors become much more pronounced in the moments prior to the whistle blowing, as the teams gather on opposite ends of the field and wait. As soon as the whistle blows, the extra flapping subsides and he concentrates on the game.
The sun rises higher in the Florida sky. It is going to be another warm day. There is no hint of chilly fall weather here. My mind begins to wander. I think back to an article I recently read called “The right- and surprisingly wrong- ways to get kids to sit still in class” You can read the article here. The article talked about how kids today don’t get nearly enough physical exercise. At school, the average amount of time outside is about 20 minutes a day, though the author claims that children need an hour or more of physical activity during the school day to be calm, alert, and ready to learn. As a teacher I believe this to be true. When the author mentioned this idea of devoting an hour of the school day to exercise to a group of teachers, however, they literally laughed out loud and explained that this was sadly impossible given the curriculum demands and mandates. Again, I know this to be true. The teachers in the article talked about how they provide their students with five minute “brain breaks” of physical activity to let the kids “get their wiggles out” between subjects, such as math and reading. The author, who is an occupational therapist, said that while this is beneficial, it does not resolve the core issues facing our children. The author posited that one of the contributing factors to the rise in ADHD, especially in young kids, is lack of time for physical activity. Activities such as rolling down hills, spinning around on a merry go round, and going upside down that were hallmarks of our childhood served a very important purpose for us as children. All of these physical activities are necessary to stimulate the vestibular system in order to have a healthy, balanced body, and sadly, our kids today get very little of it.
I reflect on this and think about my own son. I know that he has approximately a half hour of outside time during the school day, whether it is through structured PE or recess. I know that the teachers take the kids outside on the playground after school as part of the after school program. I know Ben’s teacher builds in opportunities for movement in the classroom. They cannot devote more time then this to exercise, and I understand. I know the requirements all too well.
I watch my child on the soccer field, waiting for the whistle to blow. I watch his fidgets and wonder…Is there more I can be doing? Is there more I should be doing?
Just the day before, Ben’s teacher and I touched base over the phone, as we frequently do. She and his OT at school had been talking a lot about Ben’s difficulty focusing. As I watch Ben on the soccer field, I notice his stamina waning after the first fifteen minutes or so of the game. Not only is he getting physically fatigued (partially due to the fact that only one player is able to sit out at a time during the game), but he is starting to lose mental focus. He is slower to notice the direction in which the ball is traveling and catch up to his teammates. His coach has to redirect him more frequently towards the action. The arm flaps become more pronounced as he waits for the whistle to blow. And then I think to myself, “He is only five. Is it fair to expect so much?”
My husband wonders aloud if this is how he acts at school, and I reply that it mostly likely is. Kindergarten today is very different then how it was when I was in school. As an educator, I know just how academic kindergarten has become. I know the expectations for the children. Thankfully, Ben has a strong math sense and is showing potential as a reader. In fact, his math and reading skills are above where he needs to be for his age, but I know that this does not always translate to his performance in the classroom. I know that his difficulty focusing will also impact his test scores. Yes, even in kindergarten he will take a wide variety of assessments during the school year. Luckily, Ben has the testing accommodation that allows him to have tests given to him in small segments. Otherwise, he rushes and performs much lower than his true ability, as happened for him on a recent computer test that all kindergarteners in our district took.
I am all for high academic standards. I believe students can rise to high expectations and I believe in the ability of all children to learn. I know that Ben has an amazing teacher who structures her classroom in a way that allows children to thrive and learn at the highest levels. I truly believe that Ben has won the teacher lottery by being in her classroom. He is learning so much and is thriving under her instruction and care. But, as I watch Ben play his soccer game, I start thinking forward to when Ben will be in first grade…third grade...middle school and beyond. The curriculum and assessments are hard enough for the “average” student. How will Ben perform as the demands of school continue to increase?
This week I gave three trainings for teachers on curriculum and the new assessments that will replace the statewide FCAT testing for our state this year. Other states across the nation are implementing similar assessments for the children. For the writing test this year, fourth and fifth graders will have 90 minutes to read anywhere between two and four passages, all on the same topic, and then they will be expected to write an essay either giving their opinion or facts and information on the topic, using evidence from the articles that they read. For our fifth graders, they also have the extra step of having to type this on the computer. By the time Ben gets to third grade, as it stands now, he will be taking that same test on the computer, because that is the plan for the rollout in the coming years. Third grade is three years away. I think about the expectations, and I look at my child and wonder, “Will he be ready?” and, most importantly, “What can I do to prepare him?”
As literacy coach, I receive information about the curriculum and new assessments, often before the teachers at my own school. One of my jobs is to train and prepare teachers for these changes, and yet I feel ill equipped as a parent to prepare my own son for them. Even with all I do at home to reinforce the concepts that I know he is learning at school, I still feel as if I am doing a poor job.
By the time I pick Ben up from school most days, it is dinnertime, and then after homework, it’s time for bath, books, and bed. Twice a week Ben attends private Occupational Therapy to work on his fine motor and social skills. He puts in long days every day, just as I do. As I think about the importance of physical exercise, and the relationship between physical activity and focus and achievement in school, I’m thinking about what else I can do to help Ben beyond soccer on Saturdays.
What physical activities do you do with your child? Do you find it has a positive impact on your child’s ability to focus in school? What are your worries for your child and their future in school?