meredith_overloadWhen your family makes a move to another country across an ocean, one of the main priorities of a mom is making sure her children are having as smooth of a transition as possible to their new surroundings. When just walking down the street to get in the car can be an experience in hearing a new language, it can be a very intimidating experience for children to adjust to their new surroundings. School can be one of the hardest adjustments to make no matter where you move.

A year ago, I had a fourth grader and a second grader in a public elementary school in the U.S. Their typical day was to get to school before the 8:05 a.m. bell and then have seven hours of constant instruction all day long with the exception of a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute recess. Then, they would come home, and we would hurriedly try to get the homework done (30 minutes of reading per night with a reading log to sign, 15 minutes of math practice per night with a math log to sign, and then whatever other homework was assigned for that evening by the respective teacher). Most days the homework was interrupted by running to after school activities, trying to eat together as a family, and getting to bed at a decent time.

To most parents, this sounds pretty typical…at least for the U.S. But, what I am not including here is the attitude my kids had towards school in the U.S. I did not mention that on top of the work and instruction and the meager 15 minutes of recess they would get a day that they were also taking a four hour long bench mark test for one subject about every week (yes, even my seven year old second-grader!). They could lose their little 15 minutes of recess and have to sit in silence because they talked too much in the cafeteria at lunch. They were being constantly assessed and assigned (major or daily) grades, and then tested again. They HATED doing their homework and they begged for just some kind of free time to just chill out.

I couldn’t blame them, their days were jammed packed, and if they didn’t perform and take the benchmark tests, then there was no telling what kind of score they would get on the STAAR standardized test given in Texas. The test which is supposed to prepare the students for academic excellence. During the battery of STAAR tests, the walls were covered with black bulletin board paper, and labels were taken off of water bottles in case the students may get any answers from the walls or water bottles….water bottles, really!!??

Yes, they take the labels off the water bottles so the kids can’t even see any numbers during the tests. They sit for hours on end and cannot even read a book when they are finished in case someone who hasn’t finished may see a word on a page and give them an answer on the test. They cannot talk during lunch during the testing time for fear they may exchange answers. All of this in the name of academic excellence and getting my children ready for the “real world”.

As an educator, I understand the need for assessment of students.  There has to be a marker to know the level of understanding of a child.  I do believe there is a time and place for assessment, but not all the time, and not taking up so much of the very precious finite time of elementary students.  I understand how the high stakes standardized testing began.  The idea was a good one.  There were schools that were performing very low in contrast to schools which were performing very high.  The concept was simple: give the same test across the board to all public school students and that would get everyone on the same page.  However, somewhere along the way, high stakes testing turned into scrutinizing teachers, pressuring students, and increasing the rigor of these tests every year.  This led to more practice testing in the classroom which led to less recess time and more stressed out teachers, students and parents. It is as if the testing is a runaway train that I fear no one will be able to stop.

My third grade daughter had a panic attack here at her new school the third week because she didn’t know if her presentation at school with three classmates was going to be for a major or a daily grade. Her teacher had to call me, and I had to go to the school to pick her up. That is when I explained the type of system we came from where the children were literally graded on every. single. thing. Her teacher explained to me that the children are formally assessed here a few times a year, but the majority of the time is spent with hands-on activities, and cooperative learning and interaction with one another in the class. The children are mostly graded informally through demonstration of knowledge on a topic. The teachers actually take the time to get to know each child as an individual…not just how to get them from point A at the beginning of a school year to point B at the end of the school year. I felt myself let out a huge breath that I didn’t even know I was holding. It felt as if the pressure I had felt for my children lifted, and it also lifted from them as well. Imagine, elementary education given in an age-appropriate manner!!!

Last week, my son came home and told me he had to finish his spelling homework. Without me telling him to do so, he went to his back pack got out his book and sat down to complete it without complaining and without any nagging. My daughter came home with a project about an author study. She had her snack after school and immediately sat down at the computer and began to type in her author’s name to do a computer search for information. Who are these kids? They can’t be mine…my kids were getting burned out in fourth and second grade. They hated homework and school. This fifth and third grader here in The Netherlands are completely different children. I have two children who LOVE to go to school here and who are learning and who are not having so much pressure to perform…

The school my children are attending here is an international school which follows many of the Dutch school guidelines. One of the things both of my children love the most here is that the school offers them TWO recess times per day. A 15 minute recess in the morning and a 30 minute recess after lunch where they have unstructured play time, and no one is having them sit inside and finish work they didn’t complete (like our old school). They have time to be outside in the fresh air and run and play or just talk…it doesn’t matter…there are no right or wrong ways for the kids to have recess.

They also are dismissed from school each Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. This is another HUGE perk for my kids. I have seen with my own eyes their attitude about school changing and their engagement in their school work go up. I have seen that their teachers are actually learning about my children here. Social skills here at their school are just as important as the academic skills. They both have homework, but it is assigned if work was not finished in class or if there is a special project to do for a particular unit. There are no logs to constantly sign or meaningless worksheets coming home.

Some may say, how are they going to be prepared?? Are they learning enough? I would have thought that also coming from the system we were in last year. I would get daily updates in my email about test grades and classwork. Here, the grades are not entered into the computer, and I have found that I have taken a step back. In turn, my children, have felt that pressure ease as well. They are taking tests at school, but they are meaningful, and not four hours long every week. My daughter gets to go to the school garden to see science in action with her class and learn about fungi and insects.

There have been many articles written about the correlation between recess and academic achievement. Almost all of them say that more recess and break time for children equates to better learning and attention in the classroom. This particular article is written by an American teacher who taught in Finland and found that for every 45 minutes of instruction, the students (and teachers) would get a 15 minute recess. He was skeptical at first but saw the results with his own eyes. And really, isn’t this common sense? We as adults, need to step away for a few minutes and have a coffee or talk with friends. We know when we have been pushed too far and need a break. Why do schools constantly push students even when the students have reached the point in a lesson where they are not paying attention anymore?

As a former teacher before I stayed home with my children, I have seen the public school system in the U.S. change in the 10 years since I have left education. I have seen more stressed out children, teachers, and parents (myself included) since I was an educator. Seeing education in practice here at the school my children are attending, I see what elementary education was supposed to be. The way elementary education is taught here is what I was taught it was supposed to be in my university courses, and how I implemented it in my own classroom.

After moving here and seeing the attitude change so much in how my own children view school and how much they have learned, I am convinced of a less pressure-based environment, I feel that the meaningful instruction which takes place when the children are truly engaged in the lesson is so much more valuable than powering through a lesson in which the students are not paying any attention to because of no down time and constant pressure to perform.

Having time at school for unstructured play for my own children has made a world of difference in their academic lives. They are developing their social skills and problem-solving skills during their guaranteed recess time (which is not taken away from them as a punishment). Even when we are going to after school activities, we are not as stressed about long bench mark tests the next day. They may still have homework when we get home, but the feeling of all the stress and pressure seems to have lifted on all of us. And, they actually WANT to do the work because it is meaningful to them.

The conferences I had with their teachers last week reflect exactly what I am seeing at home. Both of my children are well adjusted and happy, and are performing at or above grade level in their classes. THIS is what I wanted for my children. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them to have friends, and develop into people that other people would actually like to be around.

Childhood is such a precious time when so much of one’s personality is developed.  That time can never be given back.  I fear that the lack of downtime and recess time at school is hurting elementary children.  There will be plenty of time for hours of homework and test stress in high school and university level education.

I know that our time in the Netherlands will eventually come to an end because such is the life of an expat, but until we have to leave, we are ALL enjoying the lack of overload we were all feeling at our old school.

Does your child’s school give regular recesses? Have you noticed if it helps or hinders your child? Do your children have regular testing in their school? How does they handle it?

This is an original post to World Moms Network by Meredith. You can check out her adventures as life as an expat in The Netherlands on her blog

Meredith (USA)

Meredith finds it difficult to tell anyone where she is from exactly! She grew up in several states, but mainly Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana which is also where she met her husband. She taught kindergarten for seven years before she adopted her son from Guatemala and then gave birth to her daughter two years leter. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and two children in July 2009 for her husband's work. She and her family moved back to the U.S.this summer(August 2012) and are adjusting to life back in the U.S. You can read more about her life in Lagos and her adjustment to being back on her blog: We Found Happiness.

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