The Question of Kindergarten

San Anselmo mom Kelly Krill is experiencing a frustrating dilemma shared by many parents: Is her son ready for kindergarten?


Her son's preschool teacher suggests he wait another year and instead enroll in a Pre-K class, but Krill balks at paying more than $1,000 a month to cover the cost. Plus, she's not quite convinced he needs another year in preschool.


On the other hand, there's the concern that other parents are “redshirting,” or holding their own kids back, despite their age eligibility. She's worried this could create an unnaturally large range of ages that would make her son one of the youngest in the class.


With an August birthday, her son will have just turned 5 when September rolls around, well within the Dec. 1 birthday cutoff required by the state, but still considered “on the cusp” by many parents and schools.


Add a heavy dose of studies on the subject, along with tons of advice from friends and families, and it's no wonder Krill is burnt out from information overload. Plus, there's the pressure of making a decision in March just to secure a place for her son in the fall.


“It's driving me crazy, actually,” she says. “I just wish his birthday was in March.”


While we may have idyllic memories of kindergarten, the decision to send our own kids can evoke stress and sleepless nights. After all, it's a decision that will set the course for the rest of their academic career, right?


If we send them to kindergarten, the fear is they will be overwhelmed by the curriculum, out-performed by other kids and completely turned off to learning. Conversely, if we hold them back, they could be bored by the curriculum, awkwardly taller than their peers, and, again, completely turned off to learning.


We compare ourselves to our neighbors, look to our friends for advice and get tangled in the details. But school and education officials are quick to remind us that it's our own instincts that should be guiding the decision.


“You know your child better than anybody, really,” says Nancy Cappelloni, a Tiburon-based education consultant who specializes in kindergarten readiness. “I think, bottom line, do what you feel is right and talk to a lot of people, but don't necessary do what other parents are doing.”


Kindergarten 101

Part of the concern about kindergarten preparedness stems from federal legislation that places a greater emphasis on academics for all grades.


Kindergarten is not legally required for children, but its curriculum adjusts to prepare students for elementary school. As stricter standards affect higher grade levels, expectations are raised in kindergarten.


Many of the things kindergartners are learning were previously taught in first grade. For example, kindergarteners are now expected by mid-year to know short vowel sounds, identify upper and lowercase letters and read short words.


“Kindergarten is definitely not what it used to be,” says Susan Stanchfield, a kindergarten teacher at Fair Oaks Community School in Redwood City, who has more than 30 years of experience. “Our days are much more structured and organized and outlined.”


While this may raise alarm bells for parents concerned about their child's ability to perform in such an environment, teachers tend to be a little more optimistic.


“If I give them the support to do it, they can do it. I have a lot of faith in what the kids can do,” says Irene Fong, a kindergarten teacher at McKinley Elementary in San Francisco, who has 12 years of experience. “They do surprise you.”


Another concern is that California admits younger children to kindergarten compared to other states, the majority of which have an Oct. 1 birthday cutoff.


It's a little different at private schools, where they typically have earlier cutoff dates than California. Plus, many require students to first undergo an admissions test.


“We often counsel for an extra year of preschool,” says Vikki Wojcik, principal at St. Philip Neri School in Alameda. “It's so important that they experience success and that they feel strong and empowered about their own learning.”


There have been several attempts made to change California's cutoff in order to make students more competitive with other states, but none have succeeded. However, experts suspect it would still offer little comfort to parents. “Even if you change the age, you will always have kids who are the youngest in the class,” says Ada Hand, president-elect of the California Kindergarten Association, which supports an earlier cutoff date.


It may be tempting for parents to stave off kindergarten and haul out the flash cards, but most schools wave off the stress of academic readiness in favor of something that's much harder to teach.


What Does “Ready” Look Like?

“(Academics) is one of the things that is the least important to us,” says Stanchfield. “I don't know if parents keeping their kids out because of kindergarten academics helps them in the long run.”


What teachers want from a kindergartner is a child who is comfortable being away from her parents, who knows how to wait her turn and takes the initiative when a trip to the bathroom is necessary, in short, a child who can play nicely and take care of her needs.


San Francisco mom Hanna Clements-Hart and her husband debated at great length about whether to hold their eldest child from entering kindergarten. Her “late-bloomer” daughter didn't walk until 20 months and was undergoing speech therapy before she was two years old. In preschool, she needed more help than her peers and she hadn't yet developed any close friends.


“She hit her milestones, but she always hit them on the late end than normal and always needed a little bit of help,” she says.


Worried that an early academic environment would affect her daughter's self-confidence and create a negative experience, they opted for a third year of preschool.


“Once we made the decision, I really didn't look back,” she says. “I think, oftentimes, people think of redshirting as trying to give your kid a leg up. We weren't trying to have her be a star. She just really wasn't mature enough.”


In most cases, a child's readiness is quite clear to a parent or teacher. But in these early developmental years, it's amazing what a child can accomplish in just six months.


Anything's Possible

Oakland mom Susy Hovland once read an article discussing how boys in particular were most likely to be held back from kindergarten. It stuck in the back of her mind and all through preschool she kept a watchful eye on her son, who had a February birthday.


“My son, in particular, exhibited all the pre-signs of lateness by gender,” she says, adding that he was shy, self-conscious and adverse to risk-taking. When given “gentle homework” by his preschool teacher, he at first got frustrated with it. Then he insisted his mother sit by him the entire time, until finally he demanded she simply complete it for him.


Despite Hovland's doubt that he was ready for kindergarten, her teacher advised her to be patient, reminding her that a lot can change in children between the ages of 4 and 5.


“Then, all of a sudden, boom, change came, and the jumps were huge,” she says.


Now, she feels ready to enroll him in the fall. Still, she plans to choose a school that staffs a full-time psychologist to help identify any problems. She's also prepared for him to repeat kindergarten, if necessary. “If there are any issues of him regressing, we want to get a hold of it right away.”


Getting to this point of confidence in the kindergarten preparedness process took a lot of work on Hovland's part. She toured kindergarten classrooms almost a year ahead of most parents. Now, as she considers her final decision, she knows what questions to ask: What are teachers expecting? What is the class size? What kind of support system does a school provide for struggling students? She also relies on her preschool to guide her in making the best decision.


“My dialog with my preschool teacher has been almost constant,” she says.


As with most things involving our children, our involvement in their lives has much to do with their success or failure, something teachers continue to stress.


Do Your Homework

There are several things parents can do to help prepare their children for kindergarten. Read to your child. Encourage him to self-care, by dressing himself and packing a backpack. Encourage social interaction with peers through playdates and playground visits. Take him to museums. Play dress up. Essentially, do whatever you can to foster his curiosity.


Often, the kindergarten conundrum is solved simply by finding the right school fit for your child, and not the other way around. It pays to visit as many schools as you can in the fall, when school tours are held. How do they compare to one another?


And even though there may be a range of ages in any particular class, a good teacher will know how to tailor a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for all students.


“That's part of the fun of being a kindergarten teacher,” says Fong, the San Francisco teacher. “My job is to take them where they're at and have them blossom.”


Some schools even offer summer camps to give kids a chance to visit the classroom and get a sense of what to expect.


“It's a really good way for the kindergarten teachers to meet the kids and tell you whether they're ready or not,” says Krill, the San Anselmo mom, overwhelmed by the kindergarten decision. In fact, Krill plans to use the experience to help make her final decision.


And while it might complicate the issue, try and think about this decision in the context of how it will affect your child in high school.


“Do you want them to be the first one getting a drivers license? Do you want your daughter to be the last one getting a bra? Do you want them going to college when they're 17?” says Cappelloni, the education consultant.


Lastly, a parent's attitude has a lot to do with how a child will react to school. If they are nervous and unsure whether their child belongs in kindergarten, a child will undoubtedly pick up on that.


Try and keep the mood light. It's only kindergarten, after all.


“There's enough to get nervous about in our society than to make kindergarten the end all be all,” says Fong.

Millicent Skiles is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and a mother of two.



First 5 of California: Publishes several “Are You Ready?” publications detailing the requirements for kindergarten readiness.

California Department of Education: This is the instrument the CDE provides child care providers and development services to help determine if a child has met expectations for his age, from 36 months to the beginning of kindergarten.

National Institute for Early Education Research: Dissects kindergarten readiness and examines related public policy issues in its 2005 report “Prepared for Kindergarten: What Does ‘Readiness' Mean?”