Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

Last summer my husband and I couldn't make up our minds: Should our four-year-old son Levi begin kindergarten this coming September, or should we hold him back a year? Levi won't even turn five until October, about two months shy of our town's cutoff date, and though he seemed ready for school, friends kept telling us it was better to delay entrance for "young" children, especially boys.

Apparently we weren't the only ones agonizing over this dilemma. "All over the country, parents are discussing whether their children are ready for kindergarten," says Barbara Willer, Ph.D., of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Some educators believe that in many cases it's better to hold children back so they have an additional year to develop and mature. But other experts contend that delaying entrance does children a disservice.

What Happened to Kindergarten?

Until recently, this first year of elementary school was supposed to prepare them for the grades ahead. In kindergarten, children learned to interact with other children and practiced some basic skills, such as letter and number recognition, so they would be ready for an academic first-grade curriculum.

Then in 1983, a federal panel released a study entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which concluded that schools in the United States were not succeeding in teaching our children.

"School districts around the country responded by instituting more rigorous curricula," says Lorrie Shepard, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has studied the issue of kindergarten readiness.

To make sure that children were keeping pace with the new expectations, schools also began administering standardized tests to their students, even first-graders.

"The consensus was that youngsters needed to be better prepared for the first-grade tests, and so kindergarten became more academic," Dr. Shepard says.

As a result, many kindergartners are now expected to do what was once considered first-grade work. But a lot of five-year-olds are not developmentally ready to read, Dr. Willer says. Nor do they yet have the cognitive capacity to handle first-grade math concepts. "Even children who are well prepared in preschool may experience stress, or perhaps failure, in these new academic kindergartens," she says.

Nowadays parents concerned about such pressure often choose to hold their children back for a year. Ironically, this solution exacerbates the problem. "The more that kids are held out, the more likely it is that kindergartens will be aimed at older and older children," Dr. Shepard says.

To Delay or Not to Delay?

So if kindergarten actually is harder than it used to be, should some children be held back? Some educators, like James Uphoff, Ed.D., the author of Real Facts From Real Schools (Modern Learning Press), believe that in many instances children can use an extra year to mature socially, physically, emotionally, and cognitively. "It's the gift of time," he says. This especially applies to boys with "late" birthdays. Fred Brown, former president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, adds, "Generally, there is a developmental delay of at least six months between boys and girls, so a boy with a late birthday may be at even more of a disadvantage."

However, the NAEYC vigorously maintains that children should go to kindergarten when they are chronologically ready—that is, when they reach the age mandated by the local school district.

Dr. Willer explains: "Readiness is a two-way street. Schools should be ready for the child, and if all children began kindergarten on time, the acceleration would have to stop." The NAEYC believes that in the long run, a child gains nothing from an extra year, and Dr. Willer points out that holding a child back may deny him the experiences he needs to mature.

Ultimately, it's up to mothers and fathers to decide. What follows are parents' most frequently asked questions about kindergarten readiness, and answers from early childhood educators.

Who can help me decide what's best for my child?

Your child's preschool teacher is probably a good judge of whether she's ready for kindergarten. "Not only do these teachers get to see your child in a classroom situation, but they also see other kids your child's age. This gives them a good basis for comparison," Brown says.

Do "older" children do better in kindergarten and beyond?

Not necessarily, says Elizabeth Graue, Ph.D, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of Ready for What? (State University of New York Press). "The oldest kids in a class aren't always the ones who excel." Furthermore, any small advantage a six-year-old may have over a five-year-old classmate—for instance, being able to tie his shoes better, or being more adept at writing his letters—won't last for long, Graue adds. "By third grade it all evens out. The difference of a year between two youngsters isn't noticeable at all." In addition, boys with late birthdays frequently end up doing just as well as any other child in any given classroom, says Dr. Willer.

How can I tell if a particular kindergarten will suit my child?

Dr. Willer suggests that parents visit the school where they intend to send their child. Try to get a feel for the classroom atmosphere and the teacher's style. For instance, are all the children engaged in projects at their desks, or are they moving around the room, busily interacting with their peers? Or is there a mix of active and focused activities? Then think about your child's style. Does she enjoy sitting still, would she prefer a more active setting, or does she need more of a balance?

A variety of kindergarten options may exist in your community. Call your school district. These options can include alternative programs such as charter schools, mini-schools, or magnet school. Dr. Willer emphasizes that you shouldn't panic if your child and the classroom don't make a good match, and you have no other options. "When the time comes," she says, "parents can speak to the teacher, outline all their concerns, and help her to work things out. Besides, kids adapt."

When should I make my decision?

Delay making a commitment for as long as you possibly can. "Preschoolers change a lot over the course of a year, and a youngster who doesn't seem ready for kindergarten in January may suddenly seem all grown up and raring to go by May," says Dr. Shepard. But that doesn't mean waiting until the week before school starts: Your child should have time to adjust to the idea of leaving preschool and starting kindergarten.

My husband and I met with Levi's nursery-school teachers during the winter, and we all agreed that he'd be ready to start kindergarten in the fall with the other children his age. We still have a lot of trepidation. But we're confident that with the combination of the right program and our continued involvement in his schooling, Levi will have a great kindergarten experience.

Preparing for the Big Step

These tips from Elizabeth Graue, the author of Ready for What? (State University of New York Press), will help your preschooler prepare to make the big move up:

  • Read to your child every day. This is the best foundation you can give her.
  • Make the most out of everyday tasks. For instance, teach your child to set the table with one fork at every place. In this way he's learning an important number concept (one-to-one correspondence). And have him help you clean up after the meal; this teaches him how to follow directions.
  • Give your child lots of play time with peers. That way she'll have practice in cooperating with others.
  • Take your child to visit the kindergarten he'll be attending. Point out where he'll eat, rest, and hang his coat. A prepared child will be more confident.


Tips from Teachers

Parents sometimes think that kindergarten readiness means that a child is able to add numbers and identify letters accurately. But here's what most kindergarten teachers say really matters. Your child should be:

  • Well nourished and rested.
  • Enthusiastic about learning and curious about trying new activities.
  • Verbal enough to communicate his thoughts and needs.
  • Able to share and take turns.


Beth Levine, a freelance writer living in Stamford, Connecticut, still serenades her four-year-old son every night.