Starting “big-kid” school 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 ready for kindergarten.

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 determining if they’re kindergarten-ready. “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 for kindergarten?

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 if kids are kindergarten-ready. 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 start kindergarten:

  • Enthusiasm toward learning. Is he eager to explore and discover? Is he comfortable asking questions? Does he persist even when a task is difficult?
  • Language skills. Does she communicate her needs? Express her feelings appropriately?
  • Ability to listen. Can he follow simple instructions? Is he able to listen to an entire story without interrupting?
  • Desire to be independent. Does she separate from parents for the school day? Is she starting to take responsibility for her personal belongings? Can she follow simple two-step tasks? Can she use the bathroom by herself?
  • Ability to interact with children and adults. Is he able to share, compromise, take turns and problem-solve?
  • Strong fine-motor skills. Is she able to hold and use a pencil? Cut with scissors? Is she learning to write her name?
  • Basic letter and number awareness. Can he sing and recite the alphabet and recognize some letters? Can he count to 10 and identify numbers one to five?

Get advice and observe

  • Speak with your child’s preschool teacher. If your child has attended preschool, talk to her teacher. As an educator, she will have a good idea of how your child compares to other children at the same grade level and whether she thinks she is ready or not.
  • Speak with your child’s pediatrician. Your child’s doctor will be aware of your child’s physical and developmental maturity and will be able to offer his expert opinion.
  • Visit pre-k and kindergarten classes. Spend some time visiting both a kindergarten and a pre-k class. Does the teacher focus on writing and phonics, or is the curriculum based on hands-on activities? Look for a setting that would best fit your child’s personality, temperament and abilities.

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:

  • Set up playtimes on the school playground, especially with some of the other children entering the kindergarten program. This will establish an automatic support system.
  • Take a tour of the new school. Often a principal or assistant principal will guide the tour, and this helps to familiarize your child with the various places in the school such as the library, classroom, and nurse’s office.
  • Create a routine at home to help your child get oriented to following directions and helping with transitioning to the school routine.
  • Give your child developmentally appropriate chores at home, and hold him accountable for doing them. These types of activities will automatically transfer over into the classroom and help your child to feel successful and comfortable.

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.

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