by Merri Rosenberg
When we baby boomers were growing up in the "wonder years" of the 1950s and '60s, the emphasis in regard to entering kindergarten was the sooner the better. Many of us marched off to school when we were still a wee 4 years old. A child could generally enter kindergarten as long as he or she would turn 5 by December 31.
But things are different for our kids. Across the country, local school districts have moved up the cutoff date for admission, and many parents are being told they have to delay their child's entrance into kindergarten. In most of the nations' school districts, with the exception of those in the Northeast and California, in order to enter kindergarten, a child must be 5 by at least September 1. In some of these areas, the cutoff date is as early as July. Though admission requirements are usually controlled by school districts, some states have taken matters into their own hands and passed bills regulating school district policy in such matters.
And even in the school districts where a child doesn't have to be 5 to start kindergarten, some parents are voluntarily delaying for a year the entrance of later-born children. "They're giving the child the gift of a year to grow and develop in a natural, non-pressured way," says James K. Uphoff, Ed.D., Professor of Education at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio and the author of Summer Children-Ready or Not? (J & J Publishing Co., Middletown, OH). "The child is better armed to face stiffer competition if she's vine ripened the natural way."
The trend toward an earlier cutoff date for school reflects the growing concern among educators that a 4-year old kindergartener is at a distinct disadvantage. He may hot be ready to handle the tasks of kindergarten, and if he lags behind others in performance, it may begin to damage his self-confidence. "Studies have shown that older is better, that the children who are least successful are the youngest in their class," says Cynthia Bing, co-head of the School Advisory program for New York City's Parents League. There is also, she points out, evidence that too much academics early on can be detrimental for a child.
Why are educators only now coming to this realization?
Because kindergarten wasn't always so complicated. It was once set up for simple play, and some basic learning. Now children are expected to learn to write, read, and even negotiate computers. In addition, an increasing number of the nation's middle-class preschoolers are enrolled in some form of school program, which gives them a head start, both intellectually and socially, over kids who come into kindergarten cold.
"If there's a choice between a child who starts early and struggles or starts later and feels competent and confident, our belief is that the additional maturity pays off later," says Bethene Le Mahieu, Ed.D., Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction for the Summit, New Jersey, school system, which has a cutoff date of September 30.
For parents who put a premium on achievement, holding a child back can be frustrating. But for one parent, the decision to delay his son's entrance into kindergarten was easy. His older daughter, a December baby, had struggled through as the youngest in her class. When it came time to decide about his son, who was also a December baby, there was no hesitation. "We wanted to cut the cycle of not succeeding," says this father. "Schools are so much more competitive, I thought why not give my child another year of maturity? Why should he struggle when he could coast?"
Some educators believe that the answer isn't to delay admission but to change the focus of kindergarten. "They're holding children back to fit into what schools need," says Nancy Balaban, Ed.D., Director of the Infant and Parent Development Program at Bank Street College, in New York City.
Adds Polly Greenberg, Editor of Young Children, the professional journal published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "If so many children aren't ready for kindergarten, that proves that kindergartens are out of whack and off kilter with children of that age."
The education system could actually be setting up a vicious cycle. "If we decide that the kids on the margin will be judged at a disadvantage, we'll fill a class with 6 year oIds instead of 5 year olds in a continued escalation of academic demands," says Lorrie Shephard, Ph.D., Chair of Research and Evaluation Methodology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Where does this leave parents?
If your school district requires that you delay your child's entrance into kindergarten, you have several options.
Many nursery school programs around the country now offer an additional year for children who are age-appropriate for kindergarten, but who are not developmentally ready. Other nursery programs provide mixed-age groupings to accommodate the needs of children at different stages of development. And many independent schools have introduced a transitional or Pre-K year for children who are not ready for kindergarten.
And what if you have a choice in the matter?
Should you hold back a later-born child? It comes down to trying to realistically assess your child's readiness. "Being bright and being ready for school are separate conditions," says Professor Uphoff. "When a child is very bright and is physiologically or socially delayed, that child may be very aware of not bringing home gold stars for Mommy and Daddy."
Remember that if a child starts off too young, he may be too young indefinitely. "It's better to gamble on the side of being older," believes Bing.
For some parents, making a decision means being able to separate their own needs-those that have to do with success and achievement from those of their child's. "Parents have to understand that it has nothing to do with academic learning or disabilities," says Jessie-Lea Hayes, Deputy Head of the Allen Stevenson School in New York City. "The idea is to go with nature instead of against it, to give your child an absolute sureness of his/her own worth."
When Kirn Ryyslainean of Westchester County, New York, learned her daughter Leslie would have to take an additional year of nursery school, she was very disappointed. But her thinking has since changed. "When I look at Leslie next to one of her friends, who was 5 in February, and at the work she can do, I feel good about how things worked out, "she says. " Leslie is perfect for her age, and it is not going to hurt her being older rather than younger."
How To Tell If Your Child Is School Ready
There is, of course, no magical formula to determine if your child should postpone entering kindergarten. And no one knows a child better than her parents. But if you are uncertain about your child's readiness for kindergarten, the following questions are typically used by educators to assess a child's developmental status. Do not panic if you cannot answer yes to all of these questions, which are based on research conducted by Professor Uphoff and colleagues. But if you notice a cluster of negative responses, you may want to discuss the matter further with your child's nursery school teacher or school psychologist.
These skills and interests, say experts, reflect some of the demands that are likely to be placed on a child during the kindergarten year. As such, your child's abilities in these areas may be a predictor of success or frustration during kindergarten.