Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our child turns five this spring but we’re undecided about sending him to kindergarten in the fall. He goes to a private preschool where there are a couple of children who should’ve started kindergarten this school year but didn’t. What are key factors in deciding whether to follow rules about enrolling “on time”?
Debating with Dad
Unfortunately the assembly line system we have of grouping children in the same school grade just because they were born within a twelve month period does not fit the needs and developmental rates of all children. Plus, the environment of kindergarten looks more like first grade now with expectations that students will become readers and be able to complete math worksheets. Parents can get around this with an easy-to-obtain enrollment exemption or other options.
There are several factors to consider:
Does your child use language as well as other children his age? This can be gauged with the help of his current teacher who has experience with at least a dozen children the same age, and hopefully many years’ worth of students, for comparison. The American Speech-Language –Hearing Association has a list of skills that you can work from to support and assess your child’s competence with understanding and using language. Can he act out a story you’ve often read with him? Does he pick up new words from conversations with you? For example, a four-year-old and I chatted as we were rising in an elevator. “The elevator takes us up. It elevates us,” I said. Later he correctly answered my question, “What happened to us in the elevator?” “We got elevated.”
Cutting and Drawing
Kindergarten activities assume that a child is competent with fine motor skills to be able to cut across paper and to wield crayons and pencils to make shapes. With these skills he’ll be asked to cut and paste worksheets and to write numerals and the letters of the alphabet. Adequate strength and coordination of the hands are required as well as eye-hand coordination. In a normally developing child, this will come with experience with these tools, as well as glue sticks, liquid glue, and tape. Play dough, Legos, and puzzles are excellent activities to promote fine motor skills.
If he can’t write his name by the first day of school, this will probably be assigned as the parent’s homework. The curriculum is paced such that the teacher doesn’t have much time to give remedial help.
The demands of a day at kindergarten presume that a child can handle bathrooming, dressing for outdoors, and feeding himself without much trouble. Can he open and close the containers in a bag lunch? Can he blow his nose and properly dispose of a tissue? For better or worse, Velcro has eliminated the need for a kindergartner to know how to tie shoes, however this skill can be mastered by a normally developing five-old-year who has the opportunity, and the need, to learn it.
Will your son be ready to take care of himself by next school year?
Is your son on par with other four-year-olds for being successful with cooperative play? Does he interact competently with others to build a castle with the blocks and to act out make believe scenes such as playing grocery store? It is essential to learn conflict negotiation and teamwork from these types of experiences. Social skills don’t get much attention in kindergarten so the child who isn’t up to speed won’t get much opportunity to strengthen them through class activities. Preschool is a better place to work on social skills. Regular opportunities with playmates help a child to learn social skills that will be invaluable for a lifetime.
I’m a big fan of supporting children’s friendships. A friend helps you learn about yourself, challenges you to do your best, and supports you when you struggle. A friend validates your worth. The decision about next year’s schooling should consider whether your son’s kindergarten classmates would include anyone that he already counts as a friend. If not, consider how you can keep his current friendships going through playdates, sports, scouts, and or joint family trips and nurture his new friendships, too.
One factor that merits minor consideration is your child’s height. As superficial as it may seem, children size each other up. One who is at either end of the yardstick may face teasing or being left out. If a child is a year older than most of his classmates, but falls near the middle of the range of their heights, he won’t stick out as much as a child who is half a foot taller than everyone else.
Alternatives for Next Year and Beyond
There are a variety of options for your son other than entering the local public school for kindergarten at the end of the summer.
1) You can delay in starting kindergarten for one year with a simple declaration that the child needs that time for further development. The request form for AACPS requires that you enroll him in kindergarten the following year. He can spend the 2023-24 school year in any setting you like.
Be advised that ignoring the authority of your county school system is not an option. Maryland law classifies not notifying the school system of your decision to delay starting kindergarten “on time” as a misdemeanor subject to fines, imprisonment, or both.
2) He can stay right where he is for his kindergarten year. Use this form to notify Anne Arundel County Public School of this decision if his current school is approved as “an alternative kindergarten setting”. Nothing further is needed. You could also look around for a new program that meets your son at his level of development. Note that a registered family childcare provider – a person who has up to 8 children for a program run out of her home – also satisfies the enrollment exemption requirement. The ideal setting would include at least one other child at a similar level for academic activities involving language and problem solving skills. And ideally, the children are compatible playmates so they get plenty of experience for social skills development.
For the Fall of 2024, he would be enrolled as a new student but in first grade. (You could decide at that time that private school, with smaller class size and or more flexibility for ability levels, is a better option for him.)
3) Homeschooling is a third option with plenty of resources available to assist you including cooperative arrangements with other families. This counts as his kindergarten year with automatic enrollment in first grade for the following year. Transferring from public school to home school is completed with a simple form. This might work out so well that he remains a homeschooler at that point.
You are not alone in your concerns that a child isn’t necessarily ready for kindergarten by virtue of his birthdate. As kindergarten has transformed over the past couple of decades to look more like first grade, replacing the block corner, dress-ups, and circle games with academic worksheets, many families are more comfortable with letting their children start a year later.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 30: Temperament Differences; February 13: Why do Children Misbehave?
The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.