Practical Dad

Kindergarten:  Ready?  Get Set, Go

It's midwinter and the school signs have started appearing, reminding you that it's time to enroll your little girl for kindergarten.  You glance at her and you ask yourself the questions.  She's five years old now, but is she ready?  Is it the same as when I went through Kindergarten?  What can I do to help prepare her for the experience?  It's a big step for both of you and you want to assure that she's ready.

The fact that a child is five years of age is solely a baseline established by states as the minimal age at which a child should be able to start the mandatory educational process.  States set a certain date in the Fall - September 1 or October 1, for example - as the cutoff date by which a child must have reached the age of five to even enroll in kindergarten.  If the cutoff date is September 1 and the child turns five on September 8, then kindergarten almost always waits another year.  When most parents become concerned is when the child's birth date is in the several month period prior to the mandated cutoff date, and the question becomes whether or not the child is ready for the experience.

What are the considerations for kindergarten readiness?  John Berry is an accomplished educator with more than 25 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and was kind enough to share his observations.  In Berry's experience, there are multiple areas that indicate that a child is ready for kindergarten. 

  • Foremost is that she should be able to listen to directions and focus for a sustained period of time.  What is meant by sustained?  According to Berry, the rule of thumb is that an appropriate time frame is three times the child's age.  Remember that this is only a general rule and a child's shorter attention span isn't necessarily an indicator of future problems.
  • The child should be able to separate from the parents.  Children are naturally apprehensive and nervous before kindergarten but must be able to spend time away from parents for the period of the school day, trusting that they'll be getting home.  Kindergarten teachers are skilled in handling the children who are distraught on the first several days of school but if there are too many in a single classroom, those first days will be difficult for everybody there - students, teachers and aides alike.
  • There should be an appropriate level of trust of strangers.  We scrupulously teach our children not to speak with strangers in order to help protect them from predators who might approach.  But kindergarten is a time for encountering all manner of strangers that range from teachers and aides to bus drivers, custodians and even other children. Children should be able to learn to trust adults that they're only just meeting, yet still remember the stranger rules that they've been taught.
  • Children should have an ability to care for themselves in terms of personal hygiene, particularly with toilet habits.  Accidents will happen but the norm should be that the child can routinely clean herself after using the toilet.
  • She should have age-appropriate motor skills, such as the ability to cut with scissors and hold and use pencil or crayon.  According to Berry, one of the changes wrought by the No Child Left Behind legislation is an increased focus in school on readiness for reading and writing to the exclusion of the fine motor skills activities that would have occurred previously, such as playing with clay, for example.  There simply isn't the amount of time available to do those activities that were done before.
  • There is an expectation that she also have a grasp of basic information such as shapes and colors, knowledge that can be learned in a good pre-school program.

There are questions as to whether to send a child simply because she's reached the age of five and kindergarten educators have an axiom:  when in doubt, keep them out.  While it can apply to all children, there is an acknowledged tendency amongst parents to hold boys out a little longer because of slower maturation and emotional development.  There are no real issues with having a child wait a little longer, although it can creep up years later if the latter-start child is getting a driver license ahead of his peers.  Frankly, there can be far more issues that arise when a child is enrolled in kindergarten before she or he is prepared and those issues will cluster about issues of maturity and emotional development.

If you aren't entirely certain about readiness for kindergarten, find out if your school district has an evaluation program.  If the district doesn't evaluate the students, you can have a conversation about readiness with your child's preschool teacher or other parents who interact with her.  Regardless of whether there's a formal evaluation or not, most kindergarten teachers would be happy to provide guidance on determining readiness for upcoming children.  Conversations with the schools and kindergarten teachers also help to determine what students might require additional assistance.  Schools are obligated to provide special assistance to children who might require it, so you shouldn't be surprised if you find that special needs children are in the class along with the adult aide.

Perhaps the key difference between your kindergarten experience and your child's is due to the No Child Left Behind legislation.  Kindergarten is no longer viewed as an almost free-standing experience prior to the beginning of the "real" school of first grade, but instead as a gateway to school.  Consequently, there is a greater emphasis placed upon reading preparation, writing and numbers than in the past and your prospective kindergartener will be expected to master more than would have been expected of you. 

As the months pass and September approaches, there are things that you can do to help prepare her for the big day.  Certainly, talk to her repeatedly and positively to help alleviate her concerns.  Take her to play at the school's playground in the evening  or on the weekend so that she can become familiar and comfortable with the school.  If the school has any summer activities for the incoming kindergarteners, make it a point to attend so she can meet her new classmates and teacher.  More school districts are starting brief on-site  programs for preschoolers - such as school library story times - and if you have the opportunity to take her, attend one so that she can see what the inside of the school looks like.  Likewise, spend more time working with her on her fine motor skills with such play activities as modeling with Play-doh, coloring with crayons, using connect-the-dot pictures and cutting with scissors.

She's entering a new world and you should understand that she's not going to be the only one learning as the year progresses.  While you might be nervous, as I was, know that there's considerable expert assistance to help your child adjust and have a great year.

Thanks, John.

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