By Rachel Hoeing

When many of us were growing up, we went to the same neighborhood school as all our friends and started Kindergarten when we turned five.  But times have changed.  Not only do we have a plethora of options for schooling, but parents can decide when to actually start their children in Kindergarten. There is currently a trend of parents keeping their children back (in preschool, readiness or a transitional class) one more year prior to starting Kindergarten, even if the child fits the age requirements from the school system.

I recently heard someone mention that maybe this was an area-specific trend, so I did a little research.  That did not seem to be the case. I emailed mothers, doctors and teachers from MA, FL, TN, SC, OH, CO, PA, VA and CA and asked whether or not they had heard of this trend. The answers were split.  Half had heard of it, and half had not. As far as their opinions on the subject, that was split, too.  I posed the question without bias and would like to present the information I gathered to you so that you can take it all into account and make a judgment for yourself.

Here are a few of the responses I gathered:

– “Yes, people are doing that here. Mostly with boys born anytime from April to August. I personally think it is ridiculous. Reasons range but one I hear a lot is that it will give them a self confidence and athletic advantage being older and larger. My boys are both May birthdays and they will go (and went) on time. They are (and were) entirely ready. My oldest who is now in sixth grade is on the lower to average size range – but fits in athletically even making A team basketball every year so far. He is an A/B student.  Keeping him back wouldn’t have made a difference for this purpose. I really think parents are babying their boys far too much and that this is a poor trend – but yes it is a trend.”

-“I can see why holding a child back a year may be helpful, but I think it will only work if it becomes a requirement for all children to wait an extra year.”

– “I know many children who have attention problems and maturity issues.  Keeping them back an extra year seemed to help them in these instances.”

– “I have very mixed feelings about it… on one hand, I started K when I was 4, turned 5 in Nov. and I was always the youngest in my class for EVERYTHING, but I don’t think it was a bad thing for me. I was ready. These days the way they are pushing kids, it almost helps to be a little older so that they can handle the emotional social and academics that are so much more than what we did in K. My biggest hesitation is the widening gap in ages of the kids in each class. You have the young, young fives and then you have the older 6’s and I think there is a bit of a problem there… and I think it starts in K but I think the bigger problems arise later in their school careers when there are 13 year old freshman in High School with 15, almost 16 year olds. As a middle school parent now I am TERRIFIED of the things kids are doing these days.”

– “I have twin boys with July birthdays.  They have always been on the smaller side and were also very immature.  By placing them in a readiness class it gave them one more year to develop physically and emotionally.  They are now in third grade and seem to be exactly where they should be on all levels.  I do not regret holding them back a year at all.  They are both doing very well socially and academically.”

– “I teach at a private Christian school. There is a grade called T1 (transitional 1st grade) that a lot of parents opt on doing. The trend that we have noticed is parents of kids with birthdays in March or after want to send their kids to this T1 class. So, this year for instance, half of our class is not going on to 1st grade even though most of them are ready. It’s become more about having your child being the oldest in their class in order for them to have the opportunity to excel academically or in athletics.”

– “Our preschool just had a parent meeting about “Kindergarten Readiness” so it must be a big question for a lot of parents. The handout at the mtg talked about “redshirting” and how this was discouraged, but for some kids there is a real need to hold them back. One thought I had is how I have heard that K is now more like 1st grade. Maybe that is adding to the trend? Teachers seem to be expecting a lot more of their K-aged students these days.”

– “As an educator, I often see this harming the students more than helping them, especially in my school.  My school is a melting pot of extremely wealthy children and low-income families.  The low-income families are sending their children to school the instant they are eligible simply because they do not have the money or resources to do otherwise.  I currently have a child who turned 5 in August in the same class as a child who will turn 7 next month.  The gap between abilities and development is huge.  The seven year old is not only much more mature than the other children and therefore introducing them to things they should not yet be privy, but he is under-challenged academically.  I do not have the resources or time to give this child the one-on-one attention he deserves because he is working almost two grade levels above the majority of the class.  The same goes for the other extreme where I am unable to give the younger child the remediation he deserves. Many of my evenings are spent trying to determine how in the world I can teach to all of these abilities in one classroom so that each child can do their very best.  It had always been difficult to teach to so many levels, but this new trend is widening the gap even more.”

– “If there is a minimum age to begin Kindergarten, shouldn’t there be a maximum age as well?” 

Hopefully these quotes above have given you some food for thought.  Now to dive deeper into the issue, I would like to introduce two local guest bloggers.  The first blog is from Judith Kuhn, who is a kindergarten teacher and assistant director of the Lower School at Forsyth Country Day School.  Here is what she had to say …

I have taught first grade or kindergarten for 41 years in both public and private schools, and I have seen far too many children struggle needlessly because they started school before they were developmentally ready. Although North Carolina law states that any child who turns 5 by August 31 may enroll in kindergarten, parents need to consider that starting kindergarten at 5 isn’t the best thing for every child.

Some children do well starting kindergarten at 5, but that is because they are also 5 developmentally. Girls, for example, tend to be developmentally in line with their chronological ages. Boys, on the other hand, mature more slowly—a trend that continues until puberty. Studies have shown that, on average, boys tend to be six months younger developmentally than their chronological ages.

It is important for parents to know that developmental readiness is more important than intelligence in determining when a child should start kindergarten. I’ll give you an example of a boy I taught many years ago—one of the most academically gifted children whom I have ever taught. When John joined my kindergarten class, he was 4 years old and would turn 5 in late September. Not only was he already reading—he was reading at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Clearly, John was academically ready for kindergarten. His developmental readiness was a very different story. The first two days of school, John was aggressive toward his classmates—hitting, biting, scratching, and pinching. He was acting out to get attention.

Fortunately, I had recently taken a course at Appalachian State learning how to administer the Gesell Developmental Evaluation, a new tool (at the time) to help determine a child’s developmental age. I asked John’s parents for permission to give him a Gesell. They agreed, and I administered my first Gesell to John. Despite his off-the-charts intelligence, John’s Gesell placed him at about 4 years old developmentally. I shared this information with his parents; and after their initial shock, they agreed to let him spend a second year in kindergarten. He was so different that second year. He still loved reading, but all of his negative behaviors were gone. He made friends easily and interacted well with his peers—and he loved school.

Another child who benefited from waiting a year was Billy. He also had a late September birthday. Billy was almost a year younger than some of the other students in the class, and he struggled to keep up with the “big boys.” By January, Billy was showing signs of stress at school and at home. At my suggestion, his parents pulled him from school for the remainder of the year, and his stress disappeared.

The next fall, Billy’s parents and I witnessed a miracle: Billy was comfortable with everything that was going on in the classroom. He interacted well with his peers and he had a sense of humor like an adult’s. He stayed at my school through eighth grade, thriving both socially and academically. One day during his senior year of high school, Billy’s mother called to tell me that Billy had just been awarded a Morehead (now Morehead-Cain) Scholarship to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Billy’s mother said she and his father had immediately thought of kindergarten, and they knew that had Billy not been given a second chance at kindergarten, this never would have happened to their son.

Obviously, not every student will turn out to be a Morehead-Cain Scholar, but I tell these stories to illustrate the important role that social and emotional maturity play in a student’s success in school. The August 31 cut-off is arbitrary, and following it without considering the individual child can do great harm. Children who are overplaced in school can suffer negative consequences such as stress, poor performance, and difficulty making friends. Sometimes this is immediately obvious, as it was with John and Billy; but sometimes, the effects do not emerge until the child is in third, fourth, or fifth grade, when it is much more difficult to repeat a grade.

My advice to parents is this: If you believe that your child is not ready for kindergarten, then he or she is not ready. The opposite of that is not true: just because you think your child is ready to begin school doesn’t necessarily mean your child is ready. In all my years of helping parents with this important decision, I have never heard a parent, in retrospect, say, “I’m sorry I gave my child some extra time.”

My next guest blogger is Lynn Hamilton, a teacher with 14 years experience who is now staying home with her children.

In my wildest dreams associated with becoming a new mother, never did I imagine the amount of chaos and undue stress involved in having a baby close to the school cut off date. Maybe that’s because I had a baby in APRIL which is five months from the cut off and no where close to August 31st.

I have been a teacher for 14 years and was dumbfounded when my son’s 4 year old preschool teacher (who we adore, by the way) suggested holding him back. My husband and I sat at the table and heard “he’s all boy, he wiggles in line, he doesn’t stay focused for long”. My husband and I shared a look that said….he IS a boy and that’s what he’s supposed to be.

And so it began, the outside advice and comments, our nightly debates, research, the questioning everyone; ourselves, our parents, our pediatrician, our friends and co workers, and one time I even found myself talking OUTLOUD about it to our dog!

The undue stress consumed us for months! After all the advice, conversations, and stress, we decided to go with our gut!  We decided not to follow this new trend. My son turned five in April, plenty of distance from the cut off, did well on his kindergarten screening, hopped on the school bus and has been gaining speed ever since!

One year later we sat with his kindergarten teacher for a conference. We heard, “He’s on grade level, he’s focused and engaged, he enjoys his classmates and he is happy”.

My son continues to be “all boy” and at times he comes home with a “yellow card” for talking in line or not paying attention. We accept it and use it as a learning tool. We don’t expect perfection from any of our children and I don’t in the classroom, either.  After all, they are kids! We embrace his boy energy and encourage creative, outdoor play after school with his siblings and other neighborhood kids. We aren’t over scheduled racing from one after school activity to another. Our life is naturally busy enough, but we give our children the gift of time and by talking, listening and playing together.

It has been a joy as his mother to watch him rise to the challenge, something I hope and pray he continues to do throughout his life. I love hearing him struggle over sounding out words and watch his face light up when he gets it.  He holds the door places and pretends like he is on safety patrol, he runs in his with new library book and shares it with his siblings, and he respects his principal and knows her by name.  My personal favorite is when he packs his backpack, looks up with a confident face and says, “OK, mom, I’m ready for school.  Let’s get to the bus!”

Had we followed the trend and held him back I fear he would have become bored and lazy which would have turned into constant behavior problems. Emotionally, I think he would have worried he was not doing a good enough job and would have started to fear and dislike school.

We have the cut off for a reason and as a teacher I think that we are adding even more challenges to an already full plate our teachers have by expecting them to accommodate 5-7 year olds all in one class. As opposed to giving them the gift of more time and holding them back, give them the gift of believing they can do more then we think they can and watch them rise to the challenge!

In addition, several studies compiled by Leslie Barden Smith, in her article on Kindergarten Readiness, have shown that “age is not a predictor of academic success” and that there “may be long-term negative consequences for students who experience delayed entry into kindergarten.”

While kindergarten teachers commonly report that younger kids struggle their first year, research has also shown that “by third grade, there is no measurable academic advantage to delayed entry” and that “children who entered school relatively young did not appear to be disadvantaged academically in the long-run.” The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, when discussing delaying entry into kindergarten and kindergarten “readiness classes,” states that: “…not only is there a preponderance of evidence that there is no academic benefit from retention in its many forms, but there also appear to be threats to the social-emotional development of the child subjected to such practices.”

Also keep in mind that while a child who is held back a year to start kindergarten may seem to do better and have an easier time, he may also not feel challenged enough and could get bored with school.

So there, you have it.  I think I have covered just about every instance and perspective on this issue and I hope I have given those of you who are dealing with this predicament something to ponder.  Thank you to Judith and Lynn for your insight.  The only personal opinion I will offer on today’s topic is that I truly believe it all boils down to YOUR child.  This topic is the same as any “milestone” event in life.  Every child is different, therefore every parent must take different things into consideration.  Best of luck and from one mom to another, I hope whatever you decide will help your child be happy and be the very best he or she can be!