A is for Acorn, or Mali vs. Kindergarten

Apparently this picture would have been a more appropriate than the beaming, flower-bearing one in regards to Mali starting kindergarten.

The week before kindergarten had been such a frenzy of the fantastic & the fun that Seymour and I rarely sat down, but we did manage to keep the kids engaged, even with all of them out of school. And I thought we'd done a fairly decent job letting Mali know what kindergarten would be like: long day, mostly Spanish, one teacher, mandatory good listening. We anticipated hiccups with that last one, but not big ones.

Oh, honey.

When I picked Mali up from her first day of Kinder, the teacher said everything was fine. Mali also said she had a good time (I assume that's what "boring" meant when tossed off by our four-year-old drama queen and capped with an eyeroll). Our youngest immediately collapsed into an uncharacteristic afternoon nap, exhausted by the herculean effort of kindergartening.

Seymour and I felt all was well with the world, so we hugged Iz and my mom, and scampered off to our four childless nights and three childless days in dreamy Lake Tahoe. I focused my worries on Leo spending six days and nights away from us, on how he was handling that change, and whether the camp aides had the communication skills to reassure him properly, or if he was having too much fun to fret.

We checked with my mom the following afternoon, and were informed that Mali was Student of the Day on her second day! School was obviously working for her, and vice versa. My mom picked up Mali directly from her classroom for the next two days and heard nothing to contrast with our visions of Mali as the best, brightest, funniest, cutest, and chattiest student in her class.

Friday arrived, we rose early, checked out of our hotel and back into reality, then tore down mountains and across valleys to arrive at Leo's camp by pick-up time. Our boy greeted us with giggles, hugs, and an an enormous, gap-toothed smile. He had a tremendously awesome time, based on both his aide's account, and the amount of dirty gear he'd amassed. His laundry also contained no evidence of toilet accidents -- not a one! What an amazing boy and amazing time and amazing staff to keep Leo that centered and engaged and yet not too overwhelmed. (His front tooth wasn't the only thing he lost, BTW. He also came home minus his beloved plushy Catbus/Nekobus, a pair of tennis shoes, and swim goggles. I don't think they have a lost & found. Damn.)

We whisked our exuberant boy to a quick lunch at his favorite Indian restaurant with just Mommy and Daddy, then took him home to spread his post-camp love glow to Iz and my mom. Leo was then so pleased to be home that Seymour volunteered to stay with him so that Mali could have a similarly parent-focused, non-sibling-tainted pickup from school. Off I went.

When the bell rang, I bounced up to Mali's teacher expectantly, and said "Hi! I hope you had a good week?"

She looked at me without humor. "Actually, I tried to contact you but I must have the wrong number," she said, "Mali has been acting out all week. She threw an acorn at me on Tuesday, she is saying 'no' when I ask her to do things, and she is encouraging the other children to defy me. I spoke to her several times but it's not helping. I need you to speak to her."

I gaped at her in shocked silence.

She continued, "It's probably the language, doing everything in Spanish. But I really need you to speak to her."

I stuttered, "I am so ... sorry. I am so sorry. My mom was here this week because my husband and I were on vacation, did you let my mom know? She told me that Mali was Student of the Day, so we thought everything was going really well. That's really not like her, I'm so so sorry."

She said, "We pick Student of the Day out of a hat. Here is your independent study packet for next week while she's away. Please speak to her."

I grabbed Mali's hand and scampered away in shame. When we got to the car, I asked Mali why she wasn't being nice to her teacher and why she was choosing to not be a good listener. "It's your fault," she said, "because you left."

Good thing that kid isn't abusing her formidable social and emotional intelligence powers.

Mali's maladaptive kindergarten behavior made for a great story at Seymour's homebrew-buoyed and bluegrass-grooved 40th birthday bash the next day, but I am worried. I do agree with the teacher about the challenges of language immersion, but I am concerned that Mali doesn't see why she should behave when her brother doesn't stop acting "badly" or being "mean" to her whenever he can.

I think it's time to work in some behavioral approaches, i.e., systematically and concretely tracking positive consquences for positive behavior, as opposed to slamming her continuously for negative behavior -- which tends to make her more defiant anyhow.

She goes back to school tomorrow after a week's respite in her grandparents' alternate reality/boating wonderland. I hope the break has given her time to contemplate and process the environment of her new classroom. I know that Seymour spoke to her while they were afloat, and I have been gently reminding her about the importance of good classroom behavior since she returned last night. But I am aghast and fretting, and would welcome any further advice.


  1. I am anticipating the same kind of behavior from the Darling Granddaughter who just turned four. Four is tough. She spent a month being cared for (and spoiled) by her great-grandmother while parents off on long-needed time away. So expecting some turbulence when they all return.

    Mali is so smart and verbal, it is easy to overestimate her maturity level.

    Maybe giving her one simple rule to master for tomorrow, along the lines of, "When teacher says "do something" what do you do? Si, maesta."

  2. I'm a little concerned about the teacher. Can she not handle fairly typical four-year-old behavior? Does she not know how to deal with the first-week transition to school? Does she not know how to talk the the responsible adult picking up the child? You have no need to feel shame. Of course, your daughter needs to learn various things about behavior in school...but isn't that why she's there? Isn't that what her teacher is supposed to be doing?

    Sorry...but first read, this story sounds like a problem with the teacher. I could be way off base, obviously. No need to be aghast and fretting unless this becomes a big problem with this teacher. A teacher at this age level ought to know how to divert a four-year-old from these behaviors in a positive, constructive way.

    Also...you've got a bit of a slip in your quote there in re: Mali's name.

  3. We had a similar experience w/Squidboy's 1st grade.

    I second what Emily said; seems to me a bit early in the game for the teacher to seem so concerned.

    We used an approach similar to what Liz suggests. He has The Three Rules he has to remember at school: 1) Do what the teacher asks, when she asks; 2) No mean talk/back talk; 3) If you are feeling overwhelmed (we call it a "tsunami") tell the teacher you need some quiet time.

    Good luck. I be things will smooth out before long.

  4. I would suggest calling the camp, just to check if they have found Leelo's stuff. It is amazing the stuff that shows up the second the kids go home.

    I also think it sounds like your daughter's teacher has a classroom management problem. Those all sound like pretty standard 4 year old issues. Maybe the teacher doesn't have the confidence to maintain control of the class?

  5. Anonymous3:42 PM

    There could be a variety of issues going on with Mali and school, but I think what she said is very obvious. You went away when she started kindergarten. She was mad at you and was not going to listen to anyone, was going to give everyone a hard time and especially the new teacher who she saw right away she could intimidate. My youngest one still likes to test the waters when it comes to teachers and he is a high school junior.She sounds extremely bright. (BTW do not feel bad for going away. She should have behaved)
    My youngest's kindergarten teacher told me about a conference she had attended, the presenter asked what attributes would make someone a good doctor. The teachers listed ten traits. The presenter then said, how would you like these traits in a kindergartener? She said they all gasped. Mali sounds like a future doctor.
    Also there was one more telling statement, and that was about Leo and why he gets away with things. I have a girlfriend whose oldest is profoundly affected by his autism as well as physical disabilties. Her yougner daughter was a bright tough as nails kid, who takes nononsense from noone, even teachers. She found that a sib-shop to help her understand certain things and talk to others with disabled siblings was really helpful.
    Also, if you set some rules for her and make it a positive experience when she follows them, then she may be induced to comply. In the long run I did have to go the punishment route with my yonger one , but he is alot older and it was a last resort. Anytime there is a problem at school he still cries that they are not to tell me, not his father, but meannie mom.
    Don't worry. Don't fret. She's only 4 she is not going to be a felon. She is probably headed to be valedictorian and you are looking at a tier one college in 12 years.

  6. speak to her? Seriously? This is the same school her older sister went to, right? Perhaps there's a bit of expecting her to be the same. eldest daughter's school was: do you have any ideas on how we can help her? (btw - I've mentioned how similar your youngest and my oldest are... Now it seems even more true).

    Hopefully it was you're leaving, and she'll have a better second week. How good is her Spanish? Maybe she's feeling out of her league and needs time to adjust, especially if things typically come easy for her. Positive behavior awards worked so well for my daughter, that they used them despite the fact she is in a Montessori program. The Explosive Child book was helpful for her, too (though from your description, Mali is defiant rather than explosive. It's all about picking your battles & giving choices, though I'm doubting Ms. Speak To Her will be resceptive of making any changes...

  7. I would like to apologize once again for guffawing and snorting when I heard about the acorn incident.
    it is not funny (okay seriously? an acorn? inciting riot? okay I can't help myself...sorry...again)

    I'm sure she will settle in, and I'm hoping the teacher will be able to run the class with confidence.

    Camp does have a lost and found, but they generally have it on the table as you are leaving. Do call the office. We generally come home minus one shirt plus one shirt that is not ours. I'm hoping the other family enjoys Jake's green striped tee this year.

  8. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Why are you and your husband speaking to her as if it's her fault? She told you in her own words what was wrong since you can't seem to figure it out. She's four, is starting a new school where Spanish is spoken most of the time (for what purpose? How stressful for a four year old) and you once again dump your kids because you have to go on yet another vacation. Who the heck would go on vacation the week their four year old was starting school and leave that responsibility to their mother! Grow up and be a parent.

  9. You folks are awesome. Thanks so much. I think the teacher is doing just fine, btw -- she doesn't seem incompetent or intimidated, just unwilling to put up with awful behavior from a kid who should know better.

    I think my friend Elaine nailed this in an off-blog conversation: Mali is a charismatic little firecracker, and is used to being celebrated as such and doing her own thing, and those characteristics and tendencies are not going to benefit her in a public school classroom. She probably does think it's boring, because she has to do what she's told and she doesn't get all the attention she feels she's entitled to. It will be a learning process.

    There will be a sticker reward system implemented, with larger periodic rewards for good behavior. I will also ask the teacher if she knows about positive behavioral approaches; I'm hoping most newer teachers do, these days.

  10. @anonymous, all parents deserve vacations. We certainly enjoyed ours, and are already planning the next one. I hope you get some breaks in your life, too.

  11. Squid, my son bit the principal when HE was in kindergarten, among other not so nice classroom behaviours. To say that I was aghast was an understatement.

    The rest of his school career he was a dream student. Just a rocky transition for a very, very bright little boy. He's now an officer in the Air Force, so I presume his earlier misdemeanors didn't make it onto his permanent record.

    Mali will simply need some time to adjust, with parents who are knowledgeable in how to set boundaries and expectations. (And she has those!) She'll be fine.

  12. I am shocked, shocked, that a 5 year old said no and was a bit naughty in class. Shocked!

    IMHO that teacher needs to get over herself...

  13. @Connie Oh my! Thanks for the context and reassurance.

    @badger, it went beyond just a bit naughty -- she beaned the teacher with an acorn and was fomenting rebellion among her fellow students. But she sure knew how to pronounce "mala decision" after only five days in the class!

    Today was her first day back, and there were more behaviors. But the teacher was kind, and assured me that this is just what some kindergarteners are like at first, and that she and all the other K teachers are very used to dealing with acting out in the early weeks of immersion programs. She's also aware of positive reinforcement approaches and is trying to use them, and is glad that we'll be backing her up outside of class.

  14. yay for successful parent/teacher communication.

    For some reason, I was only just reminded of my Lola calling her teacher a 'seed hater' in first grade. Was terribly difficult not to crack up laughing. They had done an activity with apple seeds & the teacher had students throw them away when finished. Instead of saying she wanted to keep and plant them (which would have been fine), she had a meltdown. She was at the point of pretending to be a puppy as an escapist route when I came to pick her up.

  15. I'm posting this late so I'm hoping that by now things are settling out with Mali. What impresses me is that you actually took a vacation. I have yet to leave my kids with the man I married and take a real vacation. Valuing your relationship with the person who shares the parenting is wonderful. Notes taken, in my book.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.