Preschool | Kindergarten | Behavior + Discipline | New Parents | Ages 3–5

Maturity, not age, best gauge for kindergarten readiness

The question, "When should my child begin kindergarten?" was once a simple one. You'd send your child to school when he was old enough to go.

Oh, for the good old days. It's been decades since parents -- on blissful autopilot -- checked out the school eligibility date, packed up the Lone Ranger lunch box and sent Johnny on his way.

Today, most parents take close, careful looks at their child before signing him or her up for kindergarten at the age-appropriate time. Some decide -- for a wide range of reasons -- that their 5-year-old is not quite ready for school, and could benefit from spending another year in preschool or at home.

Kids with summer birthdays -- close to state cut-off dates -- present particular dilemmas: Will they be the youngest in the class? Will they be less ready/mature/socialized or academically prepared than their peers? Will they be smaller and less competitive in sports?

Parents seem particularly worried about their sons. "Boys often lag behind girls in motor and language skills, and may have a hard time sitting," says Jeanne Spurlock, a first-grade teacher at Sunset Elementary School in the Issaquah School District. "Some of them begin to feel like their self-esteem is being battered."

Although boys eventually catch up, some parents and educators feel postponing kindergarten for a year enables boys to compete on a more even playing field -- or even enjoy a bit of an edge.

What's more, kindergarten is not the romp in the sandbox it used to be, a factor that's raised the parental anxiety level to new heights. A push for more academics -- underscored by the government's No Child Left Behind act and added standardized testing -- has translated into revamped, upgraded kindergarten programs.

"What we teach in kindergarten is what we used to teach in first grade," says Joyce Arnold, kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary. "There's more curriculum now than ever; we often bemoan that we can't do some of the fun things we used to do."

But keeping kids back -- experts call it "academic redshirting" -- also has its downsides. According to a 1997 study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of kids -- ages 6 to 8 -- who were older than their same-grade peers doubled from 11 percent in 1971 to 22 percent in 1990.

Call it the Aging of Kindergarten.

"Holding a child out of kindergarten to get the physical maturity advantage has thrown everything off kilter, and resulted in there being two or more years difference in ages in the same grade," says Carol Robins, a Seattle area counselor and educational consultant. "As a consequence, a disproportionate number of kids look a head taller than others -- and behave in unexpected ways developmentally and socially."

The older kids, she says, often become leaders or bullies, and the younger ones end up being left out -- or becoming followers.

Robins' observations are backed up by the Pediatrics study, which points to potential problems in later grades for kids who are older than their peers.

"Simply being older than others in one's associated with increased rates of behavior problems, most noticeably among adolescents," writes researcher Robert S. Byrd. "Old-for-grade adolescents have been shown in previous studies to have higher rates of risky behaviors, including drug use."

So how do parents make that thorny send-them-or-hold-them decision?

Consider your own child's readiness level, Robins advises. "Each child and family differ, as do the economic and cultural contexts in which children grow up," she says. She suggests parents interview preschool teachers, friends and educational consultants to gather a more objective assessment of their child.

Investigate programs appropriate to your child's needs and learning style, Robins says. "A good match will necessitate less concern regarding chronological age." What kinds of expectations do you have of your child? What are you looking for in a school?

Make sure your child fits in with his peers, Spurlock says. "If you notice the child has a low ability to problem solve in a social sense, or if he is fitting in better with a younger group, take another look."

In addition, pay attention to your child's willingness to share and ability to sit still, Spurlock advises. Both are more important than academic prowess. "There's a huge range in academic skills," she notes. "Some kids don't recognize letters by kindergarten; others might read at a fifth-grade level."

If a parent suspects a child has a learning disability, get him into the classroom, Spurlock says. "Those problems won't go away -- and school is where the student can get help."

Most important, notes Carolee Walters, who teaches at Seattle's Emerson Elementary, evaluate your child's emotional and social readiness. "A lot of it boils down to maturity," she says.

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.


Originally published in the November, 2004 print edition of ParentMap.

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