It used to be a no-brainer. If Johnny turned 5 before Aug. 31, he was off to kindergarten.
Now, growing numbers of parents and educators are saying, “Not so fast.” More parents are choosing to wait a year before letting their child begin kindergarten or, as many educators prefer to call it, “giving him the gift of time.”
In 2002, nearly 21 percent of 5-year-olds were not yet enrolled in kindergarten, up from less than 10 percent in 1980, according to a University of Illinois study published last year in the Journal of Human Resources.
It can be a stressful decision for parents, who often look at it as the crucial first step in their child’s successful educational career.
Queen Anne mom Amy Crocker said the kindergarten decision was easy for her older son, whose birthday was in February, but she had second thoughts about her youngest, who would turn 5 on June 30. “I started really watching him and talking to all his [preschool] teachers,” she said.
Even though Sam knew his numbers and letters, Crocker had concerns about other issues, such as how he interacted with his peers. “I thought, if you can’t figure out how to resolve a Lego dispute in preschool, how will you do on the playground in kindergarten?”
Ask the pros
Educators urge parents to look to their child’s preschool teacher for guidance. “They know your child best as a student,” says Elizabeth Atcheson, director of admissions and financial aid for the Bush School in Seattle. “If you haven’t already developed a relationship with the pre-school teacher, do it now. That person is going to know if your child is ready for the transition or not.”
Adele Anderson, director of the Magnolia Preschool Co-op, says it is her school’s obligation to assess a child’s readiness, because there is no formal assessment for public-school kindergarten.
“Sending all kids to school when they’re 5 makes about as much sense as sending them based on their shoe size,” Anderson says. “We feel it’s our obligation to do an assessment so they’ll really be strong, not just in kindergarten but for the whole ride. Catching up doesn’t always happen.”
An assessment looks carefully at a child’s social and emotional development, not just academic skills. How will she handle changing from one adult to another, one place to another, one task to another?
“Most parents don’t think about the socialization skills. It’s more about ‘Can they spell, can they put numbers together, can they read?’” says Barbara Brodsky, parent adviser for the Magnolia Preschool Co-op and other parent groups. “A lot of kids who don’t have socialization skills can do a lot of those things, and it makes the parents think they’re ready to go.”
Anderson and others bristle at using the term “red-shirting” for delaying a child’s entry into kindergarten, a term that often refers to holding kids back to be stronger and more competitive in sports.
“We never use that term,” she says. “That’s not at all what we’re interested in.”
Physical maturity can be important for other reasons. “They can get frustrated when they have these wonderful minds and then they have a project when they have to cut with scissors,” says Jackie Bradley, K–3 division head at Seattle Country Day School.
OK to delay?
Seattle Country Day recently moved its cutoff date for kindergarten from Aug. 31 to July 1 to help close the 16-month age span school administrators were seeing in kindergarten.
The public-school deadline for kindergarten entry has remained constant at Aug. 31. A position statement developed by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education includes the principle that “children are enrolled in kindergarten based on their legal right to enter.”
The report says that educators have a role to play in educating parents about “the myths” associated with the benefits of holding children back.
“Delaying children’s entry into school and/or segregating them into extra-year classes actually labels children as failures at the outset of their school experience,” the report reads. “By the end of primary level, children whose kindergarten entry is delayed do not perform better than peers who enter on time.”
Crocker worried how Sam, who knew his friends were going off to kindergarten, would react to waiting for a year. “I was very concerned that he was going to feel left out or wonder, ‘Why don’t you let me go to kindergarten?’” she says.
As it turned out, Sam made new friends in his pre-K class and is looking forward to seeing old friends in the fall. “It was the perfect decision for us,” she says. “Can you imagine how confident I feel sending him next year? He’ll be ready and raring to go.”
At Annie Wright School in Tacoma, administrators find that more parents want to push their children forward than hold them back, according to Joy Phelps, associate director of admissions for Annie Wright’s Lower School. She often cautions parents to think about their child’s long-range educational success.
“I ask them, ‘Would you rather have your child be the youngest in the class or have him set up for success and be a leader?’” she says.
Atcheson agrees that she doesn’t see a surge of parents who want their child to wait. “We don’t see people holding their children back more often. It’s happening at the same rate,” she says. “What we do see is parents having a better understanding of it.”
Parent educator Kate Calhoun agrees. “Parents are more savvy; they have more access to information,” according to Calhoun, an instructor at Seattle Central and Edmonds community colleges. “Parents in my classes are much more informed.”
She says having more information has made the decision easier for parents. “I do think there’s less stigma about holding a kid back. There’s a recognition that everybody develops at a different pace.”
A doubtful parent is probably wiser to delay kindergarten rather than move forward, according to Kathy McCann, director of admissions at Seattle Country Day.
“I’ve never had a parent come to me and say, ‘I wish I’d put my child ahead a year,’” she says. “They frequently come to us and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d held my child back.’”
At the Bush School, from 10 percent to 12 percent of kindergarten applicants were advised to wait a year, Atcheson says. Parents are urged to take comfort in this advice:
“We tell parents it’s a long journey from kindergarten through 12. We tell them to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.”
Elaine Bowers is a Seattle writer and mother.