Is my child ready for kindergarten?

       As a child approaches the end of his preschool years, his parents begin to consider his readiness for kindergarten. Some parents confidently envision their child in kindergarten, but others, particularly those whose children have mid- to late-in-the-year birthdays, wonder if he’s ready for this major step. There are school districts that require children with late birthdays to wait an extra year before starting kindergarten, but most districts let parents choose whether to enroll their child during his fifth or sixth year. Because a child’s success in the first year of school lays the foundation for later success, the decision to send a child to kindergarten must be made carefully and in his best interests.  

       Parents sometimes assume that a child who’s been to day care or nursery school is automatically prepared for kindergarten, but it’s a different experience in a number of ways. Children in kindergarten are expected to spend scheduled amounts of time sitting and working on specific academic skills. Although play is considered part of the daily program, emphasis is placed on group and individual academic work and on following a set curriculum. Kindergartners become part of a large school community that operates under new rules and expectations. And children find that their parents, who are excited about kindergarten, may begin to put emphasis on “doing well.”

       Chronological age is the major factor determining kindergarten readiness, but naturally there are related factors parents should consider: cognitive or intellectual development, social and emotional development, and physical size. If a child is five to eleven months younger than other kindergartners, he may display behavior that’s significantly different from his classmates’. Even if he’s advanced in one area of development such as academics, he may generally be functioning at a level lower than expected for his age group.

       Another area of concern should be social and emotional development. A child who’s socially or emotionally immature may have a difficult time accommodating to his teacher’s demands. He may seem unwilling to behave as kindergartners should, when actually he’s unable to act more mature. He may have a hard time working and playing cooperatively with his classmates and this may cause him to be labeled a “behavior problem.” Naturally, if he’s labeled this way, his self-image will be affected, and ultimately, he may continue misbehaving because he feels frustrated and angry over his inability to do what’s expected of him.

       A child who lags behind socially but is advanced academically poses a dilemma for his parents, who may be concerned about holding him back an extra year. They may think he will not be challenged in academic areas if he waits and attends kindergarten with younger children, yet, if the imbalance between social and intellectual development is striking, he’s probably not developmentally ready for kindergarten.

       To evaluate overall readiness for kindergarten, parents should first look at their child’s cognitive development. When a child is functioning academically below kindergarten level, he sometimes can be helped through individualized instruction from teachers and specialists. But the child who’s lagging behind often has a hard time catching up because learning in certain areas is too difficult for him. Despite the instructional support, he might think he’s “not as good” as his peers, and he may feel unnecessary stress because he can’t cope with the demands of school. When this happens, he’ll probably show signs of disliking school, say he hates school, or exhibit behavioral problems. Academic struggles in kindergarten often establish a pattern that can continue for years.

      Another factor parents should consider is size and physical development. When a child is several months younger than the average kindergarten student, he also may be smaller than his classmates. Size and age are important to young children, who frequently check each other to see who’s tallest or oldest. And since children often begin to lose their teeth during the kindergarten year, a younger child might be frustrated and unhappy if he doesn’t lose teeth when his older friends do. Being the youngest and smallest can put a child in a vulnerable position in the classroom, although this naturally would be more of a problem for a child who’s reserved and quiet rather than boisterous and outgoing.

       If you’re unsure about your child’s readiness for kindergarten, seek opinions from others, including professionals. If your child has been to day care or nursery school, the first people you contact will probably be his teachers. Since they have a basic understanding of kindergarten requirements and have had many opportunities to observe children, they’ll be able to advise you. As long as you like and trust them, their judgment may be very helpful. If you continue to have questions, seek the opinion of a developmental specialist who assesses school readiness. Your pediatrician also may be of help in addressing your concerns. Friends who have held their children back a year can share their thoughts with you, and elementary school counselors or principals will discuss the issue and offer information on kindergarten readiness.

       Most parents who have held their children back a year have not regretted the extra time for growing and maturing. The child who starts kindergarten when he’s developmentally ready is better able to meet academic demands and get along with others throughout his schooling. When children don’t have to struggle to keep up, they develop a strong sense of self-confidence, and this provides a good foundation for the school years.

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