Every year, in late fall, some parents look at their four-year-olds and think to themselves, "Is this child really going to be able to go to kindergarten next year?" Four-year-olds are often very busy testing limits, refusing to follow directions and generally looking as if they wouldn't cooperate with a three-star general, let alone a kindergarten teacher. Even so, most four-year-olds will mature enough over the next year to give their parents the confidence to send them off in the fall to their first days of real school.
However, there are reasons to think about keeping a four-year-old in a preschool setting for one more year. The decision about to start a child in kindergarten has been made increasingly difficult in past years because different schools have different "cut-off" dates for school entry. For public schools in most states, a child must turn five by September to be admitted to kindergarten. California has now adopted this policy beginning in 2013-14 (this year the cut off was October 1). For private schools the formal cut-off date is usually September 1, but the selection process may favor older children and result in fewer barely-fives and many almost-sixes in their kindergarten classes. Children in kindergarten are sometimes older because their parents think that it will be easier for them to be one of the oldest in the class rather than one of the youngest. In many private and public schools the age range in a single class may be as wide as fifteen months!
If you visit kindergartens, you will see classrooms that are different from your memories of your first real school experiences. A child who would have been considered “ready” ten years ago, might not be able to jump into the reading activities that are now required as part of all school programs. Swings in the educational pendulum towards higher expectations for reading, desk work, and general social maturity are resulting in an increasing number of children being "held back" so some children are older and more capable of the challenges than others. Some of the expectations are probably reasonable for children who learned their alphabet on Sesame Street, have been read to daily since birth and are used to being with teachers instead of parents every morning. But other expectations, such as being able to sit still, using a pencil willingly, refraining from playing when it's time for work, and, above all, being able to focus on an individual task while surrounded by a whirl of activity, are not realistic for many children under the age of six or even seven. It makes sense that If children start kindergarten when they are older, they will be able to do better in a class that is offering a curriculum that is appropriate for six year-olds rather than many five-year-olds.
In order to make a decision for your own child, you will have to find out what the typical age is of the incoming kindergartners at schools you are considering. There may be a cluster of “young” fives or it may be that most of the children have turned five long before summer. Your child's age in comparison to the average age in the class is probably more important than his actual birth date. It's also a good idea to observe each kindergarten program itself and get a sense through observation and talking to the teacher about what the expectations in the school are for this group. (You will rarely be able to talk to a teacher during your observation time, but most schools have meetings for interested parents where the curriculum is described.)
Some kindergartens are called “developmental” or “Pre-K”. In California, public schools will offer a transitional kindergarten program for children who turn 5 between September 1 and December 1. These programs are designed to be a transition time for children from the playful and less structured world of pre-school to the more formal world of "real school." In some kindergarten classes, for example, children have many opportunities to move about and to engage in different activities. Another kindergarten class might expect the children to spend more time at tables or desks doing activities that require the ability to sit still and concentrate on fine-motor activities. Your child's developmental level, as well as his temperamental style, would influence whether he would do well in the more "advanced" regular kindergarten setting.
If you are trying to decide what is right for your child and you are thinking about private schools, read all of the school brochures and go to as many information nights as you can. Be aware that for some public school programs it is necessary to register early, perhaps before you know for sure what the best course will be for your child. After a few visits to different schools you'll develop a better sense of what feels right for your family and your child. Beyond your "feeling" of whether your child is ready to go on in school, here are some "yellow lights" - proceed with caution - to help you evaluate your own child's readiness:
- Your child will be 3 or more months younger than the average age of children in the class, especially if your child is a boy. Boys tend to be slower to acquire the fine motor skills that are important for school success. Boys tend to be more active than girls and may have more trouble sitting at desks or in circles.
- Your child is a first born. The oldest child in the family may be more adult-oriented and have fewer skills in negotiating with peers. If your child has had positive social experiences in pre-school that will make a big difference.
- Your child has been slow in fine-motor development. If he has trouble with cutting, holding a pencil or crayon, or other activities requiring small motor development, some of the kindergarten activities will be harder for him.
- If your child has been slow in learning to express herself verbally she may need more time to mature. A four-year-old's speech should be understandable to all adults. If it is not, ask your health care provider for help in seeking a speech evaluation.
- If your child's pre-school teacher expresses concern, listen carefully. Teachers are usually aware of expectations in local schools.
None of these "yellow lights" alone should be a deciding factor, but several "yellow lights" are a good reason to make time for an observation of the new school and a conference with the pre-school teacher. All of these suggestions aren't a substitute for what every parent would welcome at times like this: a crystal ball. But, as you will no doubt say to your child one day, if you do your best, that's what's most important!