Flunking Kindergarten

Not too long ago I had a parent-teacher meeting with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. She recommended that my child re-do kindergarten instead of advancing to first grade. She explained that even though my daughter was clever for her age, she was the youngest in her class and would not be ready for the expectations of first grade.

I immediately reacted with dismay and frustration. Was she actually saying that my daughter was flunking Kindergarten?! I claimed that there was no clear evidence that she wouldn’t be ready – we were still eight months away from first grade, and children mature so much over the summer break!

I was upset that my bright daughter might be left behind her classmates, and that she might somehow feel inferior to them. So, I defended her right to progress to first grade!

I projected what is termed as the affective heuristic, a rule-of-thumb judgment made in response to an emotional trigger, which can often be biased. I also exhibited what behavioral scientists refer to as System 1 thinking. It is the immediate, automatic, and intuitive thinking that provokes a “from the gut” response.

I didn’t pause to calculate what the best outcome might be or how to attain it. I just reacted based on what I felt was the truth.

After a few minutes, when I realized that neither my emotional appeals nor my skills of persuasion were convincing the teacher, I took a deep breath and tapped into System 2 thinking, the counterpart of System 1, which involves more deliberate, analytical thinking.

I asked her to define “readiness.” My question required her to explain her thinking in more concrete terms. Once she described “readiness” as “working independently” (apparently my daughter preferred to work with groups or with a teacher), I suggested that she give me time to get my daughter into that frame of mind. I know my daughter is social and enjoys experiencing activities with others, so I’d just have to teach her that doing something alone can be fun, too (like drawing a birthday card for her dad by herself, without anyone else seeing, because it’s a surprise).

At the end of our meeting, we agreed to both continue working with my daughter and then before summer to re-evaluate her willingness to do “independent work” And thus, determine if she was ready for first grade.

Being able to pause, collect my thoughts and re-frame the discussion into a more analytical and critical way of thinking allowed us all to consider a different option, namely a more receptive one, open to further dialogue and deliberation.

It can be very difficult to shift focus from an emotionally-based and, perhaps, biased judgment, even though doing so would likely yield better decision-making. Decision Science research shows that we can move our minds from an emotionally driven state, controlled by the amygdala region of the brain, to the more contemplative, prefrontal cortex of the brain by simply asking a question. The act of asking (and responding to) a question slows down the cognitive processes and forces one to think more deliberately.

Critically, once the thinking process has shifted, a more fact-finding and analytical decision-making process can materialize. This exploratory stage often is referred to by behavioral consultants as ’peeling the onion.’ It entails asking questions which can provide additional data, and defining terms so as to gain clarity. The goal is to reach an understanding of the underlying factors playing a role in the presenting problem.

At the end of the school year, we realized that my daughter simply wasn’t willing to do assignments independently. We discussed with her the possible reasons why, gauged her perceived experience in Kindergarten, and readiness for first grade. She said that she enjoyed Kindergarten. She did not always do the class assignments because she worried that she would not do them correctly on her own.

Apparently, my daughter did not have the confidence that the others in her class had. She then stated that she would like to do Kindergarten over again because she’d like the chance to do those assignments on her own before heading to first grade.

I thought about suggesting that she do those assignments over the summer, (my affective heuristic and System 1 response at work once again!) but then re-considered.

I realized that perhaps being the youngest in her class did make a difference after all. More importantly, I wanted to reinforce and support the process we had just gone through together to make this decision.

This episode taught me how a decision-making process actually unfolds in our everyday life, how our cognitive limitations and biases can affect emotionally-charged decisions, and how we can navigate our thinking processes to consider better, more ideal options. It has also illuminated the fact that, as parents, we usually make decisions on behalf of our school-aged children. But, when possible, we should collaborate with them so that they too can learn what good decision making looks like.

We can all be reactive at times, and that may be fine in certain circumstances (like when averting an accident on the road), yet we can also choose to be more contemplative, such as when a situation deserves more deliberate thinking. We can pause and ask a question, we can “peel the onion” to gain more information and better clarity. These are learning steps that children as well as adults can acquire and become mindful of. Luckily, we need not flunk Kindergarten to do so.

Pearl Gross

Pearl Gross is a Professional Development Consultant who specializes in Decision Coaching. She earned her Master in Behavioral and Decision Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached here.

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