Kindergarten: ready or not?

Check these guidelines to decide if your child is kindergarten-ready.

By GreatSchools Staff

Starting kindergarten is one of the biggest milestones in a child's life. Here are some tips to help you decide whether your child will be socially, academically and physically prepared to start "big-kids" school.

School cut-off dates

School districts around the country differ widely in their cut-off dates for students entering kindergarten, a factor that is certain to cause confusion for parents, especially those moving from one state to another, or considering private as well as public school. Your child may be deemed ready in one state or type of school but not in another. In most states, a child must reach the age of 5 for public school, but the birth date can range from June 1 to December 31. To find out the cut-off date in your state, visit this kindergarten cut-off dates by state website.

Experts such as Donna Adkins, an Arkansas kindergarten teacher and recipient of the 2004 Arkansas Teacher of the Year award, suggest that parents look beyond their child's chronological age when enrolling him in kindergarten. "Most boys are better off waiting to enter kindergarten. However, some of the best boys I have ever taught had summer birthdays (which made them young for their class), and they are still doing very well in school many years later."

How do I know if my child is ready?

There isn't just one indicator that determines whether your child is ready for kindergarten. Experts agree that a child's development needs to be evaluated in several areas.

Some school districts use assessment tests to determine kindergarten readiness. Children are asked questions to test their cognitive abilities. They might also be asked to perform tasks such as drawing shapes and sorting objects. Experts advise parents not to make a decision based entirely on test results, but to consider observations by teachers, pediatricians and parents.

The following is a guideline that includes a range of social, academic and developmental factors to consider when deciding if your child is ready to enter school:

Get advice and observe

Should you wait?

Every parent wants his child to succeed. With many kindergarten classes extending to full days, and academic standards increasing, more and more parents are opting to delay kindergarten for a year. "My son who has a September birthday would have been fine socially in kindergarten, but he had no interest in letters or numbers," says Jill Minus, a California parent. Minus opted to send her son to a preK program. "It's nice to have my son in class with kids that are all the same age. I also like that reading and writing begin in the spring which gives the kids a chance to settle into their new class before too much work is piled on."

Minus isn't the only one who sees the benefit of these programs. "The experiences children will have in preschool and pre-k programs will never be revisited again. Kids need to be allowed to enjoy these early experiences and develop a love of learning without pressure," says Edith Fecskes, who has been teaching preschool and pre-k in California for more than 20 years.

Pennsylvania kindergarten teacher Kimberly Colvin has been a teacher for eight years. She spent her first year teaching kindergarten, then taught second grade, and has returned to teaching kindergarten. "I can't believe how much the curriculum for kindergarten has changed since I taught it seven years ago", says Colvin. "I am teaching sight-words and letters to prepare these kids for testing in November. I used to teach this stuff to my second graders." As a result of the more rigorous curriculum, Colvin notes, more children aren't developing their fine-motor skills. "I am now seeing kids who don't even know how to cut paper."

Colvin also observes that while many children do fine in kindergarten and first grade, by the time they reach second grade, "they can't hold it together — they fall apart and really struggle." Colvin understands the importance of teaching children to read and write, but she feels that forcing the memorization of sight-words is premature. "With so much time spent learning letters and numbers, the children have no time for crafts projects or creative activities. I think it's sad, and I worry about new teachers who might feel pressured by the academic curriculum and forego any activities in order to prepare students for testing."

Delaying kindergarten can cause problems

Many educators contend that the trend to delay kindergarten has caused more problems than it has solved. Some argue that parents, who wait to send their children to kindergarten when they are older, create an unfair environment for the students who start as soon as they are eligible.

A northern California mother said she debated whether to send her son, who has a late-November birthday, to kindergarten before he turned 5. She ended up enrolling him and although she says it has been a little tough for him socially, "He was really ready for the academics and structure. He is a little behind the other kids in terms of his social skills, but I'm confident he will catch up."

Donna Adkins contends that a good teacher can teach to a range of developmental stages, "Most kindergarten teachers are expert at targeting instruction to the children in their room. We have always had children who could read and those who couldn't even recognize their name or sit down."

How parents can help

"One of the very best ways parents can prepare their children for kindergarten is by reading to them again and again," Adkins says. "Reading to them helps them develop the language skills needed for reading." Adkins also emphasizes the importance of learning social skills by providing opportunities for children to interact in small and large groups.

Here are some additional tips from Pennsylvania's 2005 Teacher of the Year, Nikki Salvatico:

Parents know best

For every parent grappling with this issue, remember that you know your child better than anyone else does. You are his first and most important teacher, and ultimately you will know what is best for your child.