The old rule of thumb is that if a child can put his hand across the top of his head and touch his opposite ear, he is the right age to start school. If he can’t reach his ear yet, he is too young.
But such a test doesn’t begin to take into account all the criteria which could be used to judge the readiness of a child for school.
If your child has been to preschool, his pre-K teacher should be consulted. She has a good idea which students are ready to move on. And if you do send your child to kindergarten, and the kindergarten teacher contacts you in the early weeks of the school year saying your child is not ready, believe her. Not every child who is the right age is ready for kindergarten.
What criteria should you use to assess your child? According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, these criteria should be assessed:
- Can your child communicate his wants and needs? Can he say, for example, that he needs to urinate or that another student is bothering him?
- Can your child get along with peers by sharing and taking turns?
- Can your child count to 20?
- Does your child recognize letters and numbers? Kindergartener are not expected to know how to read—although many can. But your child should recognize many letters and numbers and have an inkling of what they are used for.
- Can your child follow directions? Sit or stand, line up, voices off, criss cross apple sauce—these are common directions that your child will be expected to follow.
- Can your child sit still for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes, and pay attention to a teacher during that time? Kindergarteners have short attention spans, but they should be able to sit still long enough to listen to a teacher read a story or to watch a film about a baby whale. Not every five-year-old can do that.
- Is your child able to hold a pencil or paint brush? Is he able to cut with a scissors? Most kindergarteners need more work on these skills as well as on gross motor skills, but they should show rudimentary skill.
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Kindergarten teachers who responded to the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) Kindergarten Teacher Survey on Student Readiness said being able to communicate needs and wants and being curious and enthusiastic about trying new activities are the two most important skills kindergarteners need to start school with.
Some other things to look for include:
- Can your child handle emotions? It’s normal for a five year old to break down in tears when she’s upset. But, it’s important that she has coping strategies.
- Can your child use the toilet unassisted? And can he or she be trusted to behave in a restroom without adult supervision?
- Is your child obviously meek and likely to be picked on? If so, he might need some coping skills to keep bullies at bay.
Although the first two or three years might be hard for young kindergarteners, research shows that they show no academic difference from their classmates by third grade.
If your child is in sports, another consideration is the cut-off birthday. Baseball in my state has a cut-off date of July 31, meaning any child born on August 1 or later cannot participate on the same teams as children born in July. For August-born children sent to kindergarten on schedule, this means they will play on teams with kids a year behind them in school. Their teammates might be strangers rather than classmates.
Still another consideration is driving. If a student is one of the youngest children in his class, his classmates will get their driving permits up to a year before he does. Your child might feel left out, or he might pressure you to let him drive as a passenger with his older friends. Will you be comfortable with that?
And will you be comfortable with your 17-year-old heading off for college with classmates who are already 18 and 19?
Good luck on your decision. There’s so much to consider.