After my previous column on advancing or widening a child’s education with more challenging experiences, I received a number of messages and questions from parents who are interested in this topic. I invite you all to join my Facebook group for Parents on which we discuss these types of issues.
I have received a number of inquiries about when children should start Kindergarten. This conversation is one that I have had with hundreds of parents, many of whom want to start their children early and some who want to wait an extra year. Bear in mind that whatever choice you make defines the peer group and experience for your child for the next 13 years, all the way through high school.
The age at which a child is eligible to start Kindergarten is largely determined by their birthdate and the cut off dates set by state law. For public schools in Michigan, a child must be 5-years-old by September 1 of the academic year. Parents have the option to enroll a child who turns 5 before December 1 of the same year by notifying the district in writing of their intention to do so. While the school may have its own recommendations, parents have the ultimate say as to whether their child enrolls. Children born after December 1 must wait until the following school year to start Kindergarten. Private schools generally follow similar guidelines, but are able to enact their own admission policies. It should be noted that in Michigan, Kindergarten is not mandatory, but students must begin school when they turn 6, generally in grade 1.
If your child is born after September 1 but before December 1, you have the right to enroll your child in Kindergarten. You have to decide if you should enroll early and begin your child’s educational journey. In my 20-plus years in education, many of those spent doing Kindergarten admission, I have never seen a parent go wrong by waiting and I have seen parents decide to enroll their children early and it be just fine. In general, I would recommend parents consider this option only if their child has been in some sort of academic preschool or Montessori for full days for at least 3-6 months before the start of Kindergarten to ensure that the child is prepared for the elevated expectations of independence. While knowing numbers, letters and sounds is important, there are many other factors to consider and analyze and most of them are not academic in nature. When I was an admission director at private schools, I would interview a prospective Kindergartner and their parents, talk to the preschool and Montessori teachers and administer a set of assessments designed to allow the child to show me their problem solving, communication and motor skills. I would also invite the child to spend a few hours in the classroom to observe their behavior. A child is more successful in school if she feels comfortable, happy and as though they are able to achieve success than if she feels overwhelmed. Parental attitude and support are also key predictors of a child’s future success.
Parents can start to gauge development by observing how well a child manages socially with other children of a variety of ages and with other adults, without parental intervention. Observe how they cooperate and negotiate sharing with other children and how they interact with children their own age, as well as those older and younger. Explore how they interact and respond to other adults. Ensure that they can communicate in a way that others can understand and that she can ask for help when he needs it. Allow them to show you that they can manage to meet basic needs without your intervention, like independently using the bathroom and eating a prepared meal on their own. How your child handles simple problem solving that requires them to figure out simple challenges without getting frustrated demonstrates their patience and persistence. Observing your child’s social skills can give you good information on their readiness for the challenge of a kindergarten class in which there are high expectations for independence and collaboration. Your child’s teachers can also provide you with some information as they see they in the classroom and observe these same types of behaviors.
Too often, I have worked with parents who are in a rush to get their kids started in school and who do not take the time to evaluate if it is the right choice for their child. In many cases, parents are anxious to stop paying for daycare or preschool. Parents also feel pressure to keep up with other family and friends with children of the same age. In some cases, parents also feel like it is a badge of honor for them as parents if they can say that their child is the youngest or is able to do something earlier than others. Many parents also believe that their child is very able, want to provide the enough challenge and feel like waiting is holding their child back. In order to know if your child is ready, parents have to be honest with themselves about their own child. Even a few months’ difference in age can result in a big difference in maturity and behavior, particularly in younger children. Forcing a child to start something that they are not ready for can also have a lasting effect and result in them feeling frustrated and upset, rather than experiencing success with challenges and building confidence. All that said, some children do demonstrate that they are developmentally ready and are able to manage themselves very well, even though they may be a few months younger than their peers and can thrive being the youngest in a class. The key is objectively determining the best choice for your child based on their needs and setting them up in the best way possible for future patterns of success.
On the other end of the spectrum, some parents are choosing to wait to enroll their children in Kindergarten, a process known as ‘redshirting’ in order to give children even more time to develop and mature so that they have an advantage over their peers. This concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Wealthy parents who can afford an extra year or preschool and who are more likely to be aware of state age cutoff laws and parents of boys have been more likely to red shirt, but more parents of girls are starting to make this choice. Some parents feel as though their children having an extra year and being older than their peers gives them an advantage and more time to mature. Life is complex and in this day and age, parents cannot protect children from being exposed to or having access to things that they are not developmentally ready for. The only defense is a strong sense of confidence and being able to tell right from wrong. Giving a child one extra year and putting them in the position of being older when they go to high school and leave home for college could give them an advantage in terms of maturity. Some parents also feel as though the extra year allows their child to gain a stronger foundation socially and academically, which they believe will benefit the child in the long run. Some parents may also want their child to be physically larger, stronger and taller for future opportunities in athletics. While the research on this practice is limited, most of it suggests that children whose parents waited or redshirted felt no negative impact on their lives. One study interviewed several parents and redshirted children as adults, and by and large, they were happier than the students who were pushed ahead or who were the youngest in the class. In my experience, I have not seen parents go wrong by choosing to wait a year before starting their child in school. While this practice may go against our normal cultural norms of pushing our children towards advancement and ensuring that they have ample challenge, it is happens quite a bit and for some children, may be a good choice.
As we think about these two strategies: pushing kids to start Kindergarten before age 5 and parents redshirting happening concurrently, the age gap in a single classroom could be as large as 15 to 18 months. Add to that dynamic that because some children never attend preschool and Kindergarten is not mandatory in Michigan, kids with 3 to 4 years of pre school experience could be in classes with 6-year-olds who have never attended school. An important distinction is that Montessori classrooms are deliberately set up to have a large age range and the program, curriculum and teacher training are designed for these types of dynamics. This gap is significant when you think about how kids develop, particularly in the younger years and during adolescence. It can also create challenges for teachers as the variety of levels and needs increases and can impact participation in other activities like sports for which size and maturity are often primary indicators of success. As parents, it is important you pay attention to the dynamics within your child’s classroom and advocate as needed.
It is perfectly OK to talk to your child’s teacher if you feel as though they need more challenge or that they are feeling left out of certain activities. It is also OK and may be necessary to make an active choice regarding your own child’s entry into Kindergarten and take an extra year if you feel as though that could set them up for future success. It is much easier to delay entry into Kindergarten by a year than repeat a grade at a later point in their educational career. Knowing your children’s habits, nurturing their efforts and listening to their feedback is key to ensuring that their needs are being met.