When should kids start kindergarten?
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By Jessica Kelmon
Ready or not
In the meantime, it’s up to parents to determine their child’s kindergarten readiness on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration social and emotional readiness, as well as cognitive ability. For many parents, evaluating a child’s kindergarten readiness isn’t easy. Former preschool teacher Tracy Gibb delayed her son’s kindergarten entrance because he was immature socially. "I’ve worked with kindergarten teachers for many years, and what they want are kids who can sit still and behave themselves well enough to learn, rather than a child who understands what’s going on but is a discipline problem because he’s too young to handle the responsibility of kindergarten," she wrote in an email. Now, she thinks her 11-year-old son is on a par with his fifth grade peers emotionally. "This is a decision I have never regretted."
When 4-year-old Delilah’s preschool teachers suggested she might not be ready for kindergarten, her mother, Los Angeles-based songwriter and music teacher Deborah Poppink Hirshland, was impressed with how the teachers explained their conclusion. In kindergarten, they told her, there are a lot of three-step processes, such as get a piece of paper, draw a shape on it, then cut out the shape. "Delilah went to the teacher after every step to ask what to do next," Poppink Hirshland says. After an assessment, Poppink Hirshland learned valuable information about her bright daughter, who grew leaps and bounds thanks to occupational therapy. Now, six-year-old Delilah is thriving in kindergarten.
The school Nelson’s sons attend offers a young fives program for kids who may not be kindergarten-ready. At a pre-enrollment panel discussion with four local kindergarten teachers, Nelson raised her hand and asked the all-consuming question: "When should my son start kindergarten?"
"One teacher said, 'In my 35 years of teaching, I’ve never encountered anyone who wishes they hadn’t done the young fives program, but I’ve encountered some who wish they had done it,'" Nelson recalls. She was sold, and asked to have Luke evaluated for the program. The assessment included tests of Luke’s fine- and gross-motor skills, attention span, attention to detail, ability to follow directions, number knowledge, ability to spell his name, alphabet knowledge, color vision, and a hearing test. Luke scored high and showed no discernable deficiencies. So despite actually being a young five-year-old, he was deemed ineligible for the program.
Still worried her son wasn’t ready, Nelson went to the principal. "[The principal] said in his case, because he doesn’t have any deficiencies and scored so high, maybe a regular classroom would be better for Luke," recalls Nelson. Still worried for her son down the road, Nelson made plans with the principal to have Luke take kindergarten twice. "We just tell him that he gets two years of kindergarten. He doesn’t have any feelings of being held back or retained."
Yet another part of the equation with today’s high-stakes testing is that we expect more of kindergartners. Unfortunately, they’re less prepared for success. "Kindergarten is much more academic than ever," says Emily Glickman, a Manhattan-based educational consultant. "Many people feel that kindergarten is the new first grade." Reading expert and author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--From Baby to Age Seven J. Richard Gentry, PhD says the problem is exacerbated by parents failing to prepare their children for reading. Nearly half our nation’s kindergartners aren’t set up for reading success, he says. "The big question is whether a child is ready for formal reading instruction," says Gentry, who explains that in terms of brain development, kids aren’t ready to read until age six. But starting from birth, parents need to start preparing their kids to read with "joyful literacy activities" such as reading aloud, drawing, and playing writing games. According to Gentry, too many children aren't getting this kind of preparation. "About 1.5 million kids come to kindergarten and they can’t write their name or retell the story of a favorite book," he says. "They’re already behind. They’re the achievement gap."
Who gets helped — and who gets hurt
Simply staying home and being a year older in kindergarten isn't the answer. "We need to consider what the child is doing, when otherwise he would’ve been in an educational and enriching environment," says Shane Jimerson, professor of school psychology at University of California at Santa Barbara. Educational researcher Melodye Bush agrees. "It’s not good to start everyone later," she says. "It’s not good to have everyone start at age six. What we see is that the earlier you start [kids] learning to read and write, the better. As far as ability to retain knowledge, it's better to start them at age three." Bush speculates that with time-strapped, stressed parents, "kids aren’t getting the necessary pre-learning they need."
Both Gentry and Painter say that ultimately redshirted children from engaged, middle-class families "won’t be helped, but it likely won’t hurt." But the practice puts a strain on families that don’t have the resources to pay for an extra year of preschool. If these younger kids have to compete with older, better prepared children, it will, "exacerbate the achievement gap that already exists," Painter says. "I don’t advocate that school districts ban redshirting, but it’s a caution to keep in mind."