Deciding When to Start Kindergarten

Deciding When to Start Kindergarten

Deciding When to Start Kindergarten

SoalSMA - Deciding When to Start Kindergarten -  The transition to kindergarten is always a big thing for children.  And with this growing number of elementary school students, some parents are questioning whether it's better to enroll children as soon as they're allowed, or wait an extra year until they're older. 

Experts say that delaying kindergarten — a practice known as "red shirting" — can benefit children in certain circumstances, but beware that there are downsides to waiting.

When do children need to start school?

In most states, children must be 5 years old in August or September to enter kindergarten that school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

But the age at which children are legally required to start school is often older, and state laws and school district policies can vary widely.  Sometimes the cutoff date falls after the school year begins, so children as young as 4 are eligible for kindergarten.  Some states do not require kindergarten, and some districts, such as New York City, do not allow red dresses.  In practice, these different policies mean that caregivers are often given more latitude around the decision.

Why some families choose to delay kindergarten

For most families, wearing a red dress is not an option. 

"When you look at kindergarten-age children across the country, most of them actually go," says Mary Kay Irwin, director of school health services at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.  A 2013 NCES report found that in the 2010-2011 school year, 87 percent of kindergarteners were enrolled on time, and only 6% redshirted (another 6% repeated kindergarteners for the second year).  That's because for most parents, delaying preschool means another year of paying for childcare.  The report says wealthier households — those with incomes above 200% of the federal poverty line — are more likely to be redshirts. 

Irwin notes that there are times when delaying kindergarten might be a good idea.  These include children with developmental delays (although access to early intervention services in public schools should be considered for these families) and children who have been traumatized. 

Some children with birthdays closer to the cutoff date can benefit from another year of elementary school and time to mature, she says, but she encourages families to talk to a pediatrician about any concerns first.

For some parents, the decision is more about the long term.  Scott Odachowski, the father of a 4-year-old boy with a summer birthday in Broadview Heights, Ohio, decided to wait an extra year before enrolling his daughter in kindergarten.  Although Odachowski says his daughter's preschool teachers are ready academically and socially, he worries about how her age will affect her future experiences.  He said he and his wife "didn't want her to be the last," such as driving and teenage events.

Being young compared to other students in the class is higher than some diagnostic standards.  A 2018 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that students who are younger than their peers are more likely to have ADHD.  And a 2020 study published by the education news site Chalkbeat found that New York City students born in the last two months of the year are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities than their older peers. 

Kindergarten teachers often talk about the practical benefits of waiting: extending early childhood experiences.  Odachowski called it "giving your child another year" in his child's early childhood education program.

Kindergarten delay deficits

While there is often an initial academic advantage for students who enroll later, Irwin says this sometimes equalizes as students progress through their school.  (Some studies show that the benefit may wear off from the first episode.) 

Boredom is a concern for older children as well.  Sometimes, Irwin says, "a typically developing child . . . sees his mature classmates get angry." 

Lisa Fiore, professor and chair of the Department of Education at Lesley University in Massachusetts, explains that skills related to kindergarten readiness can develop quickly.  "A child who can't do something ... at 4 years old can do it at 4.9," she said.  A child who may not be ready to start kindergarten during the normal spring enrollment period may be ready by the time school starts in the fall. 

Finally, experts say the financial burden associated with another year of childcare or preschool is a challenge for many families.

The impact of covid

Today, most research on red-shirted children entering kindergarten finds them in a situation where much of their early development was affected by the unusual circumstances associated with the pandemic. 

Irwin said children are missing out on preschool experiences because of preschool and daycare closings and capacity constraints, as well as parents choosing to keep them at home.  Today's 4- and 5-year-olds "experience more isolation than any other group of children in our country's history," she says.  For that reason, she calls being in person "crucial." 

Fire agreed that Covid-19 has affected children's social development.  Because many have been isolated for so long, he says, "they're a little behind in learning to negotiate or get along."  

Hilary Hentges, lead kindergarten teacher at North Broadway Children's Center in Columbus, cites these challenges as a reason why families consider delaying kindergarten an extra year in preschool.  Because of the skills and structure many children miss out on, Hentges said kindergarten can feel overwhelming.  "If you don't feel like your child is going to be successful in a highly structured classroom, I think there's a huge benefit to taking an extra year." 

More time in a play-based preschool can help, “that kind of play builds all the skills you need;  From your hand strength to your social skills to your language development.

How to know if your child is ready for kindergarten

If your child is currently in preschool or kindergarten, my experts say talking to those teachers is a good place to decide whether to enroll in kindergarten.  Talking with your child's pediatrician can also help you understand your child's readiness, says Irwin.  She says the students often take a kindergarten readiness assessment, and parents can ask to speak with the assessor about their child's readiness. 

Visiting prospective preschools on school tours and talking to teachers and administrators in the building can give you a sense of what to expect and what your child's abilities are to meet. 

To help you make the decision, Fiore suggests making a list of your worries and excitement about your child starting school.  Finally, if you choose to wait until your child starts kindergarten, experts say make sure they enroll in a high-quality preschool program.

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