Deciding whether or not to hold back a child from starting kindergarten is a hot topic in online parenting groups. We talk to early education experts to get their take on the most important signs of kindergarten readiness.
When it comes to kindergarten, it seems the tides change every few years — we hear stories of children starting early to get a jump start on academics, then a rash of stories about parents holding their kids with summer birthdays back to give them a “redshirt” year.
Parents face a dilemma: What’s right for my child? And how can I prepare them for a school system with increasing demands?
“I totally get why parents are confused. Sometimes it does feel like kindergarten is the new first grade,” says Mary Schumacher-Horner, Director of Helen Gordon Children’s Center at Portland State University. As schools come under pressure to perform on standardized tests, some are pushing academic skills in younger grades. Schumacher-Horner says that this, combined with the high cost of child care and few affordable options for preschool, can put parents in a bind.
But, she and other child development experts say there are many things parents can do to help ensure a smooth transition for their children.
Redshirt or early start?
Schumacher-Horner has spent her career in education — and has also faced the kindergarten dilemma herself. Her son was born in June and, when it came time for kindergarten registration, she opted to let him stay in preschool an extra year. “I just didn’t want him to feel rushed,” she says. Now, her son is 26 — but that experience gave her immense understanding of the difficult choices parents face. “It’s extremely personal,”
In Oregon, you can register a child for kindergarten if they are 5 years old by September 1. But children aren’t automatically registered, and parents can ultimately decide the best time. And while most schools don’t advertise the option, it is also possible to enroll children early. This typically involves paying for an outside test to determine readiness. But that trend gives some early education experts pause.
“In my work as an educator and program director and parent, I have tried to push back on the issue of waiting or not waiting,” says John Nimmo, Ed.D. Nimmo is an associate professor in early childhood and doctoral leadership programs in the College of Education at Portland State University. He also previously served as the director of an early childhood learning center.
Nimmo advocates that schools and parents should stick to the policy on the age for children to enter kindergarten for several reasons. He sees value in a diverse group of learners attending school in an inclusive environment that meets all kids’ needs — and he has concerns about who benefits from policies that allow some students to test in early.
“There are concerns from a privilege point of view,” says Nimmo. “Who gets privilege by being able to navigate the system?”
Schumacher-Horner agrees. “Deciding when to put kids in kindergarten is a very personal issue, but the fact is, not everyone has the luxury to have that conversation,” she says.
While parents may focus on whether a child can identify letters or write their name, education experts focus on another type of readiness: social-emotional.
“The most important prep for kindergarten is social-emotional development. Children should be able to see themselves in a group, to be in a group with other children, and to have emotional regulation that’s appropriate for their age,” says Schumacher-Horner.
Parents can encourage social-emotional learning in many ways, including talking about feelings with their child, modeling positive emotional regulation, and participating in playgroups or preschool where children are encouraged to learn healthy self-regulation.
“Children are always trying to make sense of what’s going on around them. As a parent, you can talk with your child about what they’re experiencing and help them develop a strong image of themselves and who they are in the world,” says Nimmo. That understanding helps them feel grounded even as they face new situations — like being in a classroom, navigating friendships and problem-solving.
In addition, experts urge teaching kids the basics. Children should know their first and last name, how to use the bathroom on their own and thoroughly wash their hands, and how a book works. It’s also helpful if children are familiar with talking about things like numbers, letters and the weather, adds Schumacher-Horner.
She says the best way to encourage this is being fully present with your child as much as possible, which can be a challenge in the screen age. Whenever possible, she suggests passing on screen time during car rides and instead playing games where you count or look for specific objects or letters during car rides.
“Be in the present with your child. It’s really the most important thing you can do,” she says.
In a recent social-media discussion about kindergarten readiness, several Portland parents asked: Should my child enter kindergarten knowing how to read?
The answer, for several reasons, is: no. For starters, research has shown that a child’s ability to read at grade level by the end of third grade is the most critical reading benchmark. That’s because in fourth grade, the curriculum shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” And if a child isn’t able to read at grade level by the end of third grade, they may get left behind in subjects like history or science where students are expected to read to learn. That can compound and translate to lower graduation rates for kids who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
What does third-grade literacy have to do with kindergarten readiness? Research has shown that very early reading skills do not have a long-term benefit and, in fact, some students who have very early reading skills can become bored and disengaged, say both Schumacher-Horner and Nimmo.
The bottom line: If a child is interested and curious about reading skills, parents should encourage that. But don’t force it in an effort to give your child a head start.
The best way to raise a reader? Read daily to children, play word games, and encourage an excitement for literacy.
The role of the school and teacher
Nimmo says parents shouldn’t just focus on whether their child is ready for school: “Parents should turn that question around: Is the school ready for my child?”
He takes an inclusive and developmental perspective on the issue: “If children are legally ready to go to school, then the school should create a program that is accessible to all children, regardless of their ability.”
He recommends visiting the school and observing the learning environment well before your child is registered. When the school year starts, he recommends a proactive discussion with their teacher about your child’s learning style, what excites them, what challenges they’re working on, and what topics really interest your child. This can help ensure your child’s needs are met in school — and can ensure that your child feels seen in a new environment.
Overall, early learning experts urge a focus on developing your child’s love for learning. “I would step back and think about things like: How is my child’s curiosity? How am I feeding my child’s desire to learn and tinker? We want to raise curious kids who believe they have ideas.”
Get Ready for Kinder!
There are many elements of kindergarten readiness — but
experts increasingly say the most important aspects aren’t whether children know their ABCs or can write their name. Rather, the most important thing is that kids have an excitement for learning.
Here are the top readiness skills kindergarten teachers look for, according to PPS:
‣ Excitement toward learning
‣ Talking about thoughts and feelings
‣ Listening to others
‣ Desire to be independent
‣ Playing well with others and taking turns
‣ Ability to hold and use a pencil or crayon
‣ Recognizing numbers and letters
Looking for activities you can do with your child to help encourage
a love of learning? Go to pps.net/page/933 and click on “Helpful Hints for Families and Caregivers for a Confident Start to School.”