Schools work on ‘1st-grader problem’

Reiko Bando / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

Educators have increasingly begun to grapple with the problems some first-graders have adjusting to their new lives in primary school. Some schools take a preemptive approach by encouraging preschoolers to visit and experience their future schools.

In mid-February, about 40 children from Otsuka Nursery and Aoyagi Kindergarten in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, visited Aoyagi Primary School, where they will become first-graders in spring.

During their visit, they stopped in at a fifth-grade art class. There, they worked with the fifth-graders, making decorations for their entrance ceremony.

Holding up a piece of silver origami paper, one of the little boys said, “I want to make a butterfly.” One of the fifth-grade girls answered his call and suggested they cut it out with scissors.

During the 90-minute-class, the children completed a large number of decorations for their ceremony.

One of the preschoolers said: “I was scared at first, but I’m OK now. I’m excited about going to school.”

The primary school began to invite preschoolers last school year, as part of a Tokyo metropolitan government initiative. The older preschoolers are invited to participate in gradeschool classes such as art and music, as well as events such as lunch and the sports festival.

Principal Toru Morishima says, “By getting used to what it’s like in primary school, the kids will have a smooth transition.”

Experts say the increase in first-graders’ behavioral problems started in the 1990s. Signs include being noisy, leaving their seats and disrupting class in general, apparently because they are not used to being part of a group.

The metropolitan board of education surveyed 1,313 Tokyo public primary schools in 2009 over the problems, and discovered occurrences in about one-quarter of the schools.

The problematic behavior includes students leaving their desks or classrooms without permission (68 percent), not following their teachers’ instructions (62 percent) and fighting with their classmates on a daily basis (50 percent); 54 percent of the schools said the problems continue throughout the year.

Aoyagi Primary School’s plan is not merely an exchange program, but a carefully organized series of annual events promoting information sharing between the school and the surrounding preschools.

During the current school year, the preschoolers visited the primary school nearly a dozen times. Parents, too, were invited to the events.

This type of simulated school life also has been experimented with by other local governments, including Kyoto Prefecture. This is beneficial for primary schools, as they can use the time to learn about their incoming class by regularly engaging with the kids.

The central government’s new guidelines for primary school curriculums, to be enacted in April, encourages life guidance classes for new primary school students to expose them to a variety of subjects.

Shiraume Gakuen University Prof. Takashi Muto, a specialist in first-grade behavioral problems and other such issues, said, “It’s become clear we need to bridge the divide between preschool and primary school, though we have yet to see how substantial the effects will be.”

While kindergartens and day care centers have been enthusiastic about tackling the problem, and have been setting aside time in which they teach the children to listen quietly, primary schools are slower to catch on.

However, that has been changing since 2009, when the government began issuing instructions and revisions that urged preschools and primary schools to work in tandem.

Educators cite the cause of the problem as environmental changes in the way in which children are raised.

“These days, kids are told they shouldn’t go out to play by themselves, or they’re just too busy taking extracurricular lessons,” one primary school principal said.

“So they end up having fewer friends and fewer places to play. It’s no wonder that today’s children haven’t acquired the ability to adapt to new circumstances,” he said.

In a 2009 survey by the Tokyo metropolitan board of education, principals and teachers cited the following causes of the behavioral problems:

— Children haven’t learned patience.

— Children haven’t learned how to behave socially.

— Families aren’t as well equipped to educate their children.

— Teachers are unable to control their students.

(Mar. 17, 2011)

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