What’s the Best Age for Kindergarten?

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Deciding whether your child is ready for school can be a difficult decision. Discover the pros and cons to starting or waiting.

Full1062.jpgWhen you think of kindergarten, you most likely remember sun-filled mornings spent dangling from the monkey bars, cookies and milk after lunch and nestling on the floor with friends for a long afternoon nap, drifting dreamily off despite the occasional whisper of classmates or the hum of the air conditioner.

And schoolwork (tracing the alphabet with musty wax crayons or creating a colorful paper turkey for the holidays) was completed with a careful eye, and deemed satisfactory after receiving praise from the teacher.

It was all in a day’s work.

This fall, many parents will begin the kindergarten adventure again, this time with an entirely new set of questions and concerns. How do I know if my child is ready? Should I keep him at home one more year? Is he mature enough to begin school?

The Changing Focus of Kindergarten

Deciding whether or not your child is prepared to start kindergarten can be a difficult decision, and research available to parents is limited. But as the debate over the best age to begin grows, and as the playful days of summer fade all too quickly into a “back-to-school” frenzy, some parents find themselves questioning whether or not their child is ready to begin today’s fast-paced world of academia.

And with good reason. Florence Kidd, elementary director of Nashville Metro Schools, says the structure and focus of kindergarten have changed completely in the last several years.

“When I taught,” says Kidd, who has also worked as a kindergarten teacher and principal during her nearly 30 years in Nashville, “we did tasting, smelling, cooking. The emphasis was on socialization and being community helpers.”

Fast-forward to 2004, when children are expected to know how to read before the first grade. “Kindergarten’s not at all what it used to be,” says Kidd. “When students come in, they hit the ground running.”

According to Kidd, many parents are surprised at how much kindergarten has advanced. Even naptime, with its blue vinyl mats and dimmed fluorescent lighting, has been diminished to a mere 20 minutes.

Knowing if Your Child is Ready

As expectations of our children’s academic performance grow, so do questions about whether or not the average 5-year-old is prepared for this enhanced world of reading and writing. William Dycus, Ed.D, a psychologist for Metro Schools, says, as a general rule, most children are. Dycus encourages parents to enroll their children in school as soon as possible, noting that the best age to start school is when the child’s peers start.

“A child who’s really struggling needs to get to school,” says Dycus. “He needs that stimulation and time away from the TV. He can start and still catch up.”
Children who are socially disadvantaged and those who are extremely intelligent would also benefit from starting school early, he says.

“You have to look at the individual situation and the lifelong effect – even up to their dating and marriage years. The worst thing you can do is look at the first two or three years,” Dycus says. Starting a child in kindergarten at age 6 will often produce positive results the first year or even through the third grade. But by sixth grade, the positive results will be gone, and the personal and social impact, such as starting puberty a year before his classmates, will outweigh his brief academic success, he explains.

Dycus encourages parents with “summer babies” to look at the big picture before making a decision. “Girls, as a general rule, have more advanced skills going in,” he says. “Their brains are wired differently, even at age 5.” This heightened skill level will frequently result in a better scholastic performance than that of their male friends. This difference, which Dycus notes is not based on scientific research, should not be the key determining factor for parents of 5-year-old boys who are facing this dilemma.

“In my opinion, someone’s always going to be the youngest,” says Carla Leake, a mother of four in Franklin. As a speech therapist, Leake agrees with Dycus on the importance of getting kids started in school early, particularly if a learning disorder is suspected. She advises parents who think their child might have learning or speech difficulties to have them tested through the school as soon as possible.


While many parents insist on keeping their children out of kindergarten an extra year for academic or developmental reasons, others have athletics in mind, knowing that an older child means a bigger athlete down the road. Again, Dycus suggests evaluating the child’s academic and social needs as well.

“The Kindergarten Dilemma,” an article published in Parent magazine, traces the trend toward holding kindergartners back to the late 1980s, and claims the decision by parents has “created more problems than it has solved.” Educators interviewed claimed this trend has caused the age gap to be wider than it should be, making it more difficult for teachers to meet the needs of the class as a whole. Those who take the opposite opinion believe that children should enter kindergarten when they reach a higher level of maturity rather than a pre-determined age. A University of Colorado study, which followed long-term effects of the trend, found that there was “no significant difference between the children who had been retained and those who hadn’t.”

Preparing Children for Kindergarten

While factors ranging from a child’s cultural background to his genetic make-up can play a role in determining his readiness to begin kindergarten, the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) reports on risk factors of children who perform poorly their first year. These include a mother with an education less than high school, family utilization of welfare programs, single-parent families and families where the primary home language is one other than English. The study found that “the fewer of these risk factors a child has, the better they do in math and reading at the beginning and at the end of kindergarten.”

But regardless of a child’s social status, the support and encouragement of family can make the greatest difference. “The best key to success for a child is coming from a nurturing home, with parents who help him succeed,” Dycus says.

Ensuring that your child is both physically and emotionally prepared for this transition is essential, and the earlier training begins, the better, says Kidd. PreK programs, such as Head Start and Mother’s Day Out, emphasize many of the basic skills needed before entering kindergarten, including colors, letters, and shapes. Knowing letters is especially important, she says. This includes the recognition of “sight words” such as “can,” “am,” “jam,” “cat,” “hat” and “at”.

While day care and preK programs certainly contribute to a child’s academic growth, parents are essential to the learning process. Incorporating skills such as coloring and reading into their everyday play will produce substantial results. “Reading is invaluable,” Kidd stresses. “It’s so important. Even talking to your child, writing him a note or telling him a story is a big deal.”

In addition to reading with your child everyday, help him learn to correctly hold scissors and crayons, use glue sticks and play with clay. Knowing how to communicate properly is also a necessary skill for a kindergartner. Talk with your child, and make sure he can communicate in full sentences without having to point at what he wants. Basic life skills such as washing hands, tying shoes, taking on and off a jacket and working buttons and zippers should also be taught at home.

The week before he starts school, continue to discuss things he’ll be experiencing. Particularly important, says Kidd, is for a child to know about his before and after care, and who will be taking him to and picking him up from school. Help him select his first-day-of-school clothes a few days before, and lay them out as a reminder.

Leake’s advice to other parents of kindergartners is to be familiar with your child’s school, and to take advantage of “sneak-a-peek” programs where preK kids can visit in the spring or summer and see first-hand what kindergarten is like.

Working with your child to develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in kindergarten will help build his confidence and yours. While it may not be the leisurely, play-filled day it once was, it’s sure to be a time in his life that will leave him with vivid memories of childhood friends and the unmistakable smell of wax crayons.

Melanie Hill is a freelance writer residing in Nashville.


What Skills Are Needed?

To insure success in kindergarten, the following major attributes are key:

  • Showing an interest in learning about new things
  • Being willing to join in new activities and new situations
  • Having good language comprehension skills
  • Being able to adjust well even when things don’t go right or as planned
  • Expressing ideas and feelings to others
  • Asking for help appropriately
  • Showing consideration for others
  • Taking the initiative in planning and doing things
  • Being proud of progress and achievements
  • Thinking of ways to solve problems
  • Learning from adult guidance
  • Observing others to learn what to do
  • Remembering and reflecting on things in the past

Source: Going to School: How to Help Your Child Succeed
Sharon L. Ramey, Ph.D. and Craig T. Ramey, Ph.D. (Goddard Press)

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