overworked kindergartnerRecently I was talking to someone whose child, she said, "simply hated kindergarten." She went on further to recall how much she herself (like so many of us) had loved going to kindergarten. She reminisced fondly about a sand table and a water table and a dress-up center and building blocks and an easel with colorful paints, none of which were part of her son's school day routine.

Yes, school has changed.

Anyone who worries that our children will grow up "soft" because of the "trophy culture" they live in hasn't fully considered the modern child's world. Although we adults may be handing them awards and prizes and medals based on mere participation in their week-end pursuits - rather than for exceptional performance or talent or even effort exhibited during a competitive activity- such is not the case when these same children show up at school each Monday morning. Here, they enter the cut-throat world of school accountability and a culture teeming with high-stakes and high pressure.

How high pressure? Well, it's high enough to have created a need for academic tutors… for kindergarten students.

So how do you know if your own child or the children you teach are too stressed? Watch and listen.

Some children will tell you quite plainly if they are feeling overburdened and that school is too demanding. Others will complain of physical symptoms or show changes in behavior, eating, or sleeping patterns (see this account of school stress-induced problems). Still others will have what I call UASS: Unspecified Aversion to School Syndrome, rather like the little boy who "simply hated kindergarten." He didn't really understand why he hated school; he just knew that he did.

If your child is sending out the message that he dislikes school, let your child's teacher know (but remember if your child is under undue stress, the chance is high that his teacher is as well).

If you're the teacher, let the principal and your curriculum directors know, and invite them into your classroom to see for themselves (but remember if you the teacher are under undue stress, the chance is high that they are as well).

Seeing a pattern here? Me, too. Yes, school has changed and will continue to change, and change is often good. But not always.

There are lots of opinions out there about how and what children should be taught in the primary grades, and mine is but one of them. But here's what I can tell you for certain: Beware of the classroom that is ultimately devoid of joy, because real learning -- not just memorizing and repeating, but real learning -- creates a cheerful excitement. Real learning produces smiles. Real learning is joyful.

Real learning is also empowering. If you see that your child or students are happy about and engaged in their schooling, then thank those people who are making it happen. If, however, you find that your child or students are deflated by school rather than inspired by it, then don't we adults owe it to them to do something about it?