He turned 5 during the spring before kindergarten. Five-year-olds go to kindergarten. End of story, right? Sure, he was “young” for his age: He had trouble paying attention during his lessons in preschool and with writing his letters legibly. He showed no sign of interest in learning to read. But, I thought, what in the world would he be doing in kindergarten that was so hard?
When I went to kindergarten in the late 1970s, my classroom had a giant slide and a sandbox. Kindergarten was half-day, and we spent most of our time playing games on the playground, building with blocks, and lying down on our nap mats as our teacher read stories.
It took me less than one day of investigating — reading articles about how kindergarten is the “new first grade” (or even second grade), asking questions of friends who had elementary school-aged kids, and getting outraged about the Common Core’s expectations for kindergarten students — to realize that the kindergarten that I knew as a child is long gone.
I used to think that parents who held their kids back a year for kindergarten were just trying to “game” the system. They wanted their kids to be smarter, more competitive athletically, and more mature than everyone else’s so their kids could win athletic awards or be better positioned to get into Harvard someday.
Now I know the truth: Most of these parents want to protect their kid’s childhood for just one more year before they enter a system that expects too much of little kids. Many parents understand implicitly that forcing academics prematurely on kids who are not developmentally ready can have terrible consequences: decreased self-esteem, lower grades, anxiety. They understand that young kids learn best through play-based, hands-on, experiential learning, not worksheets and spelling lists. Earlier is not better when it comes to academics. (In fact, a recent study found that delaying kindergarten until age 7 had profound mental and academic benefits for children, not just when they are young, but years later.)
Kids don’t develop at the same rates. We understand that principle when it comes to milestones like learning to walk. My daughter learned to walk at 15 months, and my friend’s kid (who is the same age as my daughter) learned at 9 months, and at age 2, you would never be able to tell who was the earlier walker. There is very little that I could have done to “force” my daughter to walk before she was ready. It works the same way with literacy skills: research shows that whether kids learn to read early or late, they all end up at the same place a few years later.
It’s not the end of the world if you decide that today’s kindergarten is not a good fit for your kid right now. This is a decision that only you can make.
Before you decide, here are a few things to think about:
1. Investigate whether your town has a transitional kindergarten or “Young Fives” program. These programs were originally developed for kids who had summer or late birthdays, but now lots of other kids take advantage of them. Many states or towns offer programs for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for kindergarten. The academics are typically less rigorous, often the day is not as long, and the focus is on socialization and emergent literacy skills.
2. Find out if other schools around you offer half-day programs. There could be charter schools or private schools in your area with shorter day programs. (Don’t be intimidated by the cost of some private schools; many independent schools have generous financial aid programs.) My son now goes to a local Waldorf school for its play-based and multi-age “kindergarten” instead of going to public school kindergarten.
3. Homeschool for kindergarten. This is obviously not an option for most working families. (It wasn’t for me.) I have a few friends who kept their children home instead of sending them to kindergarten. You can send your child to kindergarten the following year, or first grade (if they’re ready), or continue to homeschool.
4. Find out exactly what the school’s expectations are before you make a decision. Is there homework for kindergartners? What’s the class size? How much recess would they get? Many school districts are getting the message from parents (and from research) that little kids should not have homework and should have far more recess.
5. Become an advocate. If you have the privilege of deciding between these options, you are very lucky. Many parents don’t. The only real solution for all children is to change the system that now imposes developmentally inappropriate instruction on young children. Find out how you can get involved to make changes at the federal, state, and local levels through organizations such as Defending the Early Years, Alliance for Childhood, Parents Across America, and KaBoom.
We can fight together for developmentally appropriate learning for our kids, together with teachers and early education researchers. In the meantime, do what’s right for your child.