Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?
Like most parents, Shana and Bill Rogford worried a great deal about their son, Jon, as he approached every age and developmental stage from teething to toilet training. But the thing they say they obsessed most about was deciding whether or not he was really ready for kindergarten.
"His birthday falls really late in the year, so we worried about the fact that he would turn 5 only a month or so before some of his older classmates would turn 6," says Shana. "We wanted to be sure we weren't pushing him into a stage he wasn't quite ready for."
Is there such a thing as starting your child's formal academic career too soon? Can you really know if your child is ready to begin kindergarten?
While many school districts rely on age as the determining factor, some educators believe that the most important aspect to determining if a child is ready for kindergarten is how much previous experience he or she has had in a school setting.
"Don't underestimate the preschool experience," says Brenda Sanders, an elementary school principal who has been an educator for the past 28 years. "The social aspects that children learn from preschool are invaluable. We may see it as play and fun, but play is serious work for a child. It ends up helping a 4-year-old acquire the tools he will need in kindergarten."
Sanders notes that many of the children she sees who come into kindergarten without any preschool experience at all have a difficult time in group play (because it involves sharing and learning how to work cooperatively with others) and often have trouble with the concept of a school day routine, especially in a full-day kindergarten setting.
"Going from being able to nap or play whenever you want to a structured, full-day school day can be like an educational shock for a child. Most children need some prep for that," says Sanders. She recommends at least two days of half-day preschool for children a year away from starting kindergarten.
What Your Child Should Know
"Schools seem to expect the children entering kindergarten to know a lot more than their parents had to when they went to school," says Margaret Bodison, a family service and parent involvement manager with the Head Start Program in upstate New York. "From soup to nuts, they are expected to know certain things when they walk in the door. It's like they need to hit the ground running, not learn it once they get in." For example, although the children from her Head Start classes have until the last of December to turn 5 for kindergarten, Bodison says they are still expected to know their first and last names, their parents' names and their address for starters.
Some districts even test children before or shortly after the school year has started. Sanders says that in her district, all kindergartners are evaluated by the school nurse using the Press Test which screens a child's physical development, alphabet recognition and his or her knowledge of body parts, colors and shapes. "It is just one indicator of their physical and cognitive development," says Sanders. "They ask basic things that a 5-year-old child should know."
But what if your child doesn't know her colors or can't tell the letter "A" from "Z"?
"It still doesn't mean your child is not ready for kindergarten," says Sanders. "Some children are just late bloomers, whether they were born in September or January. That's exactly why I don't buy the theory of birth date solely deciding if a child is ready or not. Age, like alphabet recognition, is only one indicator. There are so many more." She recommends that if your district has a pre-admission screening and your child doesn't do well, you should request the test be performed again. If he or she still does not perform well, ask for your child to be re-evaluated three and six months later. "That way, if there are any developmental or neurological difficulties, you can get a jump on them right away by contacting a child psychologist or neurologist," she adds.
Get Feedback Whenever Possible
If your child attends a preschool program, Bodison recommends you pay attention to the information the preschool teacher passes onto you. "Consistency is how a child learns from preschool age," she says. "If the teacher is telling you that 4-year-old Billy or Betsy still cries for an hour after you leave in February or that he or she can't make it through 10 minutes of circle or group time without getting up by March, that may be a signal to you that (he or she) may not be quite ready for kindergarten."
"Even in a two or three day program, the teachers will clue the parent in on their child's readiness," says Sanders. "But you've got to hear them. And don't be afraid to ask questions. That's part of what they are there for."
If You Do Keep Your Child Out for a Year...
So what so you do if you decide to keep your child out of kindergarten for a year? What can you do to make sure he or she is ready when September rolls around again?
"Getting your child involved in other activities is key," says Sanders. "You may think you are doing him a favor by keeping him home with you, but you are not. It could be one of the worst mistakes you can make."
"And don't forget to do your research," says Bodison. "We tell our parents that they are their child's first and most important teacher, but a parent also needs to know the expectations of the school system their child is going into." If your district has many schools with a variety of academic programs, it is important to look into all of them in order to determine which might be the best fit for your child.
Both also stress how important it is to take your child's needs into consideration. "You know your child," says Sanders. "Don't be afraid to do what's best for him or her. You know your child better than any school district ever could."