Each year, in late summer, most 5-year-olds head off to kindergarten, no questions asked. But when a child doesn't turn 5 until just before or after the school year starts, or is intellectually precocious or developmentally delayed, his parents may hesitate before signing on for this educational leap. In fact, the current trend is for parents to decide themselves when their child will go to kindergarten, rather than automatically sending him according to age, says Craig Ramey, a professor of psychology, pediatrics, and neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who studies children's transitions to elementary school.
Unfortunately, it's not always an easy call. "There's more to consider than just what happens in the classroom that first year of school," says Karen Economopoulos, a former kindergarten teacher who creates elementary-school curricula for TERC, a nonprofit educational organization in Cambridge, MA. If you enter your child early, will he be the last in his class to get a driver's license? If you hold her back, will she be the first to start her period?
Though deciding can be tough, you can take comfort in knowing that there's no "right" answer: What works for one child may not for another, and there are trade-offs inherent in every choice. The important thing, as parents who have struggled with this issue will attest, is to ask yourself some key questions, then use the answers to draw a conclusion that your youngster -- and you -- will be happy with.
How Mature Is Your Child?
Carolanne and John Roberts, of Birmingham, AL, held back their 5-year-old son, Fletcher, in part because they felt he wasn't as socially mature as his preschool classmates. He'd also been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and since most kindergartens teach what just a generation ago was the traditional first-grade curriculum, his mom "felt it would be best to give Fletcher an extra year to develop the readiness skills" that kindergarten teachers expect: following simple directions, knowing not to hit, and being able to focus on something for longer than 15 minutes. "The more we talked with people in our community, the more we realized that there was no stigma attached to it, and there were a lot of advantages," Carolanne says.
Experts cite social and emotional maturity as the single most important consideration when weighing a child's readiness for kindergarten. One who is socially uncomfortable or emotionally insecure could very well be ostracized, says Ramey. For such a child, waiting a year can be a real boon: "He's not going to know he's not starting kindergarten because his parents think he's immature, but if he does go and can't do the work and interact appropriately with his peers, he's surely going to know what failure means." And since studies have shown that this experience of failure tends to repeat itself in later grades, many parents and educators recommend giving a child the best chance possible to do well in school from the very beginning.
Does He Like to Learn?
Three years ago, Susan and Paul Sulich, of New Fairfield, CT, didn't doubt that their son, Paul, would be able to keep up in kindergarten, even though his fifth birthday wasn't until November. "He's always been bright, and his preschool teacher definitely that felt he was ready to move on," says Susan. But the Suliches weren't sure what to do, because many other parents in their community were holding their own young-for-the-grade children back.
"At first, I thought maybe I should do the same thing, so that by the time Paul got to kindergarten, he'd be that much smarter and zoom ahead," she says. "But the more I looked at him, the more I realized that there were more pitfalls to holding him back than sending him on."
The Suliches worried that Paul would be bored, either by a preschool that didn't offer the necessary intellectual stimulation, or eventually by kindergarten itself if he'd already managed to pick up -- on his own or in preschool -- the knowledge and skills being taught there.
Many kindergarten teachers believe strongly that a skillful instructor can adequately challenge a smart kid -- by having him read aloud to the class, say, or lead other kids in sorting blocks or other activities. Ramey points out, however, that the Suliches' reasoning was valid: "Generally, bright children are also socially advanced," he says. In other words, you often don't have to worry that a precocious child will be at a disadvantage as one of the younger kids in the class, especially if he already knows he may not be as accomplished at some skills as his peers.
Is She Big (or Small) for Her Age?
Susan Carlton, of Cape Elizabeth, ME, was concerned when her daughter, Jane, started kindergarten in August four years ago, at age 4. (Jane wouldn't turn 5 until September.) Although it was common in Carlton's community for children to enter a bit young, and Jane was reading, she says, "Jane's petite, and I worried that the bigger kids would tower over her."
When it comes to kindergarten, size matters. So does temperament. "Children who are shy and slow to warm up in social situations, and who are also small, might benefit from waiting to start kindergarten," says Economopoulos. But she also says size shouldn't be your only criterion: "We all know little dynamos who can run circles around everyone else."
As it turns out, Jane -- now in fourth grade -- has been fine. "She's spunky," says Carlton. "She keeps up with the work and has friends. When she's a preteen, I don't know how I'll feel, but I'm happy with my choice now."
What Do Other Families Do?
Vanessa Currie, of Vail, CO, still isn't sure she did the right thing when she sent her daughter, Morgan -- now a fourth-grader -- to kindergarten right after she turned 5 in August, but that was the trend in her community. "We lived then in a small town in New Mexico where the kids she played with were going into kindergarten," says Currie. "The town was so small there was no preschool, so kindergarten was really the only option. Besides, developmentally Morgan seemed to be right where she needed to be."
The next year, the family moved to Vail: "The expectations here are much higher, so we played catch-up for a year. In hindsight, I might have done better to hold her back a year in New Mexico, especially if there'd been a high-quality preschool there. But she's doing beautifully. It just means a little more work at home for us."
Experts don't always agree on how important it is to follow community trends in deciding when to send a child to school. Some say that, developmentally, keeping kids together in an age range is socially and emotionally important. But, argues Ramey, "In this country, we group kids by age because it's administratively efficient, not because it's good educational practice," pointing out that life itself offers a broad range of age mixes and that education ought to prepare a child for life. The choice Currie made at the time was wise -- she knew that her daughter was emotionally and intellectually prepared for the school she would attend.
In the end, parents who debate the kindergarten-readiness issue must take various factors into account: No child fits neatly into any category, and no one else's experience can entirely predict what your own child is likely to encounter. Every decision has its trade-offs, and you can take comfort in knowing that, in most cases, you can make accommodations with your decision should problems arise. Children are resilient, so chances are when you walk out of the kindergarten classroom on the first day, turning to wave one last time, your child will already be happily engaged in the brand-new world of school.
Margaret Renkl is a former teacher who lives in Tennessee.