These Are the Hardest School Years For Kids, According to Teachers

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First grade hit us like a freight train. After coasting through kindergarten, excelling in all areas, my daughter and I were not prepared for the giant leap into academics this next level would bring. And it was hard . . . for both of us. I remember looking at one of her papers just a few weeks in where she’d been marked down for using all capital letters. “When did this become a thing?” I thought. “Isn’t it enough that she’s writing?” I felt like I hadn’t gotten the memo regarding these new expectations, and like my daughter hadn’t either.

Then came the math, which my little girl seemed to struggle with right out the gate. Add in homework and weekly spelling tests, and first grade suddenly felt like a jump several rungs up the ladder with no safety net and no hand to hold onto. It turns out I wasn’t entirely alone in feeling that way.

“The odd-numbered years are always the hardest,” a teacher friend said to me one day as I lamented about the ice-cold shower first grade had become. “Kids are usually learning new information that then becomes review in the even numbered years. Kindergarten to first grade is the worst.”

The concept of odd-numbered years being harder than even-numbered ones wasn’t anything I’d ever heard of before. And looking back on my own schooling years, I wasn’t entirely sure I totally agreed. I remember fourth grade as being my hardest year. But that could have been because I had Mrs. Jackson, the meanest teacher of my educational career besides the college physics professor who announced to a room full of students that I wasn’t smart enough to become a doctor. (Joke’s on him, I dropped out of pre-med and became a writer.)

But I also realized my own assessment of my schooling years may not have been especially accurate. So I reached out to some education experts for their opinion on this whole “odd-numbered years are harder,” theory.

Jennifer Holt is a teacher and the founder of Happy Teacher Mama. She has a master’s degree in early childhood education and six years’ teaching experience in elementary school. She told me there’s a lot of truth to this idea of odd-numbered years being harder.

“The amount of new content introduced in the odd-numbered years alone is more rigorous,” Holt explained. “Then if you consider the social expectations, it’s glaringly obvious that the odd numbered years are more difficult.” She broke down some of the academic expectations by grade level:


  • Letter and sound recognition
  • Some small word memorization
  • Writing small words and basic sentences
  • Number recognition
  • Basic addition and subtraction
  • Modified grading scale (no number or letter grades)

First Grade

  • Mastery of reading sentences and short books
  • Writing sentences and short paragraphs
  • Addition and subtraction of large numbers
  • Composing and decomposing numbers
  • Basic word problems

Second Grade

  • Continue reading picture books and longer paragraphs
  • Continue writing sentences with more complexity
  • Composing and decomposing larger numbers
  • Continue learning about word problems

Third Grade

  • Memorization of multiplication facts
  • Complex multi-step word problems
  • Relationships between multiplication and division
  • Writing multi-paragraph essays with proper grammar
  • Reading chapter books and increasing fluency
  • Increased personal responsibility for homework and school work

“Every grade level teaches some new content and deepens student understanding,” Holt explained. “But the odd-numbered years are the ones that are full of new information.”

Alysia Simpson, a first grade teacher in Arizona, agreed. “Odd numbers are pivotal years in a child’s elementary school years,” she said. “These are the years that students are learning new foundational skills that are necessary to be successful individuals in our society.”

She said exactly what my friend had told me, that odd-numbered years are often dedicated to learning new skills while even-numbered years involve strengthening and growing those skills. “Some great examples of these foundational skills include learning how to read, addition, subtraction, basic sentence structure, multiplication, division, and learning how to read to gain new information and comprehend.” This year alone, we’ve taken on the first four of those skills.

So I’m not crazy. First grade has been a big step up. And the truth is, my daughter has struggled in ways that may indicate a need for additional help. We’re working those problems, alongside her teacher and administration. They’ve been integral in identifying these potential issues early, and have been incredibly supportive as we’ve waded our way through finding solutions that work. We’re lucky in that way, as a lot of kids struggle for years before anyone realizes they shouldn’t be struggling quite so much.

But if these odd-numbered years are so much harder to begin with, how is a parent supposed to know if it’s just the transition a child is struggling with, or something more? Simpson says the best thing a parent can do is go to their child’s teacher with their concerns as soon as those concerns arise. “I always encourage parents to develop and maintain a strong relationship with their child’s teacher and school right away. Find out how you can best support your child, academically, emotionally, and mentally, and make thoughtful decisions together with professionals in education.”

We’re halfway through my daughter’s first grade year, and definitely doing all of that. And it does help to know I wasn’t completely off base in feeling like this leap was a big one. Just as it helps to imagine that second grade may be easier, as we move past this plowing ahead phase, and into the review, grow, and build stage.

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