My son turned five this spring and we just signed on for another year at our preschool. That’s a dangerous statement to make on the playground. For some reason, the age at which to send your child to kindergarten has become just as factious as our current political climate. The parties fall along two lines: send them young and get the edge or wait a bit and ease them in. Our son has special needs that are currently being well taken care of in his inclusive preschool, which puts us firmly in the “easing in” camp.
We are nice and cozy where we are and public kindergarten will still be there in a year. Many of his friends are already cruising the school supply aisles with their moms in search of the perfect first-day-of-school backpack and pencil case. I’m waiting to see if "Moana" will beat "Frozen" in the lunchbox department. If you’re on the fence about whether to go or stay, here are a few questions to ask yourself about the great kindergarten debate.
1 | Is my child physically ready?
Kindergarten means structure. Kindergarten means lesson plans and goals and homework and targeted skill sets and the first step on the path to academia. It also means sitting in place for long periods of time and short or non-existent naps. It means acting like a big kid and staying in your seat and staying quiet when the teacher is talking and everyone else is trying to learn. All of this requires a certain level of physical maturity, of self-discipline. The Washington Post, in an article on the benefits of delaying kindergarten until age seven, reports that “many early childhood experts have expressed concern about forcing very young children to sit and do academic work, arguing that kids learn best through structured play.” Every kid has a different stillness threshold. Only you, as the parent, knows if your child is physically ready to tackle the full academic day at age five, six, or seven.
2 | Is my child mentally ready?
Ask me this on a Monday morning and I’ll give you a different answer than I would on Friday evening before bedtime. Mental readiness is key in considering whether your child is ready for the big leap – and I don’t mean knowing his numbers and letters and first reader books. I mean attention span. I mean the ability to listen to someone talk for more than two minutes without drifting off mentally and physically. Children and goldfish have probably the same length of concentration. Some kids just might be really attentive goldfish. In a Danish survey, “The Gift of Time: School Starting Age and Mental Health” experts found that a one-year delay in the beginning of school, “dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity.” You know how long your child can focus. If the focus is there, kindergarten is calling, but it’s okay if it needs to wait. Sometimes we just need to do a few more laps in the pond.
3 | Is my current schooling situation doing the priming?
Because my son is receiving physical and occupational therapies at his preschool as well as getting the peer interaction that is such a benefit of formal schooling, we are staying put a little longer. If your child is in preschool, consider the kind of preparations he or she is already receiving. Many are now laying a lot of the groundwork for you. They are practicing the patience and lengthening that attention span and teaching peer-to-peer interaction. Sharing is caring. Wait your turn. Play nice with others. All the old adages. If your child is already used to the routine and would feel left behind when all the friends go off to school, then you know it’s time fill out that paperwork. If the backpack and thermos have already been selected, then you know what to do. The transition has to come in stages. So ask yourself, are we, at home and at preschool, already taking those small steps that will, in fact, be one giant leap for our family? If so, you’re ready to rock the kindergarten circuit.
4 | Is my kindergarten the new first grade?
Do your research. If you’re off to public school, find out what school your child is zoned for and dig like a reporter. Ask neighborhood parents. Ask your kid’s older friends. Ask your mom group or ask your Facebook group (if you dare) and get the general consensus on the school. Is it known for its vigorous academia? What is its educational philosophy? In an article, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” that appeared in the American Educational Research Association, recent studies have shown that “accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.” This means that “they devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.” So is your child’s kindergarten actually first grade in disguise? If so, refer back to question #4 and ask yourself again, is my child prepared?
5 | Am I ready to ease on out of the first round of childhood?
This one’s a question that no study, no data, no expert but you can answer. Kindergarten signifies the end of an era, the launching of those early years off into the sunset as you send your child on to newer adventures. It means bus rides and carpools and packed lunches and snow days. It means school friends and parent-teacher conferences and a new time schedule, with bells. “Extracurricular” will now take up residence in your vocabulary. No longer will you be the parent with the kid at the park at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. It’s a mindset shift. If you need to hug yourself a little right now, it’s okay. All good things must come to an end to make way for better things. Kindergarten will bring your child one step closer to independence, and independence is a good thing. Just think how good it felt when you crossed the potty training finish line. This is the beginning of a new race, but you’re the only one who can decide when to begin.So, if you are tuning into the great kindergarten debate and don’t know which side to throw your votes behind, quiz yourself in these five areas, and answer honestly. Don’t be bullied by one side or the other. You are the best advocate and expert on your family. You get to play by your own rules because you made them, the people and the rules, and you will judge in the best interest of all parties.