Does she know her numbers and letters?
Can he sit still and listen to the teacher?
Should we wait until next year?
Evaluating a child’s readiness for kindergarten used to be simple. If she was 5 (or close to 5), it was time. Now, educators, experts and parents agree that turning 5 years old does not automatically indicate that a child is ready for kindergarten, and they consider other factors besides chronological age.
But it’s not just about a child’s readiness to learn and participate and thrive. It’s also about the school’s readiness for incoming kindergartners.
Academics vs. social skills
Teachers, schools and parents differ in their views on readiness.
Large-scale studies indicate that a majority of teachers consider a child ready for kindergarten if the child is:
- Physically healthy, rested and well nourished
- Able to communicate his or her thoughts and needs in words
- Curious and enthusiastic in his or her approach to new activities.
Teachers place less emphasis on academic skills, such as using a pencil, knowing the names of colors and shapes and recognizing letters. Parents look at similar factors, such as whether a child has a positive mind-set about going to school and can adjust socially. But contrary to teachers, parents tend to weigh academic skills more heavily.
As U.S. kindergarten education is increasingly driven by national and state learning standards, perhaps it’s no surprise that parents agonize over academic skills as an indicator of kindergarten readiness — which might be one reason why many parents “hold back” younger children from entering kindergarten at age 5. What parents might not know is that the evidence for any academic edge achieved by delaying entry is disputed and seems nonexistent by the time a child enters higher elementary and middle-school grades (unless the child is dealing with identified learning issues).
Ready, set, go!
So, what are the indicators that a child is ready for kindergarten?
1. Self-control and confidence. Consider these questions regarding a child’s regulation and self-confidence:
- Is the child excited and ready to take on the next stage of learning? Does he talk about going to kindergarten?
- Is he curious and ready to learn a variety of new things?
- Does he know how to engage in a group-learning situation? When to speak up, when to listen and let others share?
- When faced with a challenge, can he persist on his own before asking for help? Can he share his needs and thoughts?
- Can he follow instructions and work independently for a short duration of time (5–10 minutes)?
- Can he learn group routines and rules easily? Can he advocate for himself in the face of a structure that does not work for him without being disruptive?
- Is he flexible and can he adapt to changes in plans?
2. Social and emotional skills. The greatest emotional challenge for a new kindergartner is getting to know and trust a whole new group of people. Children naturally need to seek connection with the teacher, and a strong and trusting relationship with a teacher can be the springboard for connections with peers. Consider these questions about social and emotional factors for readiness:
- Is the child able and ready to separate from primary caregivers?
- Is the child able to listen to others?
- Can she solve problems with peers without getting physical or disruptive?
- Is she open to new caregiving adults and able to listen to them, share her needs and eventually able to trust them?
- Can she engage in a social conversation and cooperate with peers?
- Can she interpret others’ behavior and emotions?
- Does she feel good about herself and others?
- Does she know her name and those of her parents/primary caregivers?
3. Physical development. Developed physical abilities can ease a child’s transition into kindergarten. Parents can ask themselves:
- Does the child demonstrate consistent hand-eye coordination?
- Does he run, jump, skip, balance on a beam and climb?
- Can she catch and bounce a ball?
- Can he use writing and drawing tools and child-size scissors?
- Can she manage her own clothes and use the bathroom independently?
While a rich and fluid intellectual backdrop is essential to a strong early childhood experience, specific skill acquisition is not essential to a positive kindergarten or early-elementary education.
But still, parents might wonder, what about reading? Research shows that children are most naturally open to learning to read between the ages of 6 and 7 years. By the time a child enters kindergarten she only needs to fall in love with language, play with it, enjoy stories, spin her own tales and have a basic understanding that words are represented in print.
Is your school ready?
What does it mean for a school to be “ready”? Here are some questions parents can ask:
- Can the school adjust its instructional approaches to be more responsive to individual children’s needs?
- Does it have a highly qualified professional staff that has positive expectations about children’s abilities to learn and succeed, no matter what their socioeconomic or linguistic backgrounds?
- Does the school support the professional development of all those who interact with children, not just classroom teachers?
- Does it monitor and document adopted educational approaches and adjust the approaches according to student needs?
- Does it invite parental involvement?
- Does the school recognize that children can benefit from support outside the school, such as health care and social services?
- Does it partner with community organizations, such as museums, libraries and local colleges, to facilitate children’s learning in the broadest manner possible?
In the end, readiness is not the responsibility of a child and family alone. Schools can take concrete steps to meet children as they embark on a whole new stage of learning in kindergarten. Together, parents and schools come together to create an environment that is relationally rich and acutely sensitive to the tender hearts and curious minds capable of taking on courageous learning.
Parents need to trust what teachers know already — that self-control, confidence and social and emotional readiness are the greatest indicators of a smooth transition into kindergarten and elementary school. While our nation continues to run after standards, we parents can effect a deeper change by raising confident, patient, kind, curious little people ready to take on any kind of learning.