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How to know if your child is ready for kindergarten

Is my child ready for kindergarten? Experts share insight on determining if your little one is on track for big kid school.

How to know if your child is ready for kindergarten

Kindergarten is the new first grade. That’s the word on the street if you talk to many moms of school-age kids. While your child may technically be the right age to start kindergarten, the increased academic requirements and test pressures have many parents wondering if their kids are really ready for it.

With today’s kindergarten looking very different from the one we remember, how can a parent know if their child is really ready for kindergarten? Here’s expert advice for assessing your child’s readiness and sources that will help you determine what’s best for them.

Consult with your child’s pre-K teacher or pediatrician

One of the best allies in making this decision is your child’s pre-K teacher or a pediatrician, says Kyle Snow, a specialist in early child education and senior research associate at RMC Research. The teacher should have the best idea of whether a child can meet social and academic expectations.

Parents are not always the best judge of readiness because they can be plagued by anxieties. Some parents worry that their child will get lost in a big classroom or will be seen as small and won’t get picked for sports teams. Others just want their kids to have the best possible start to school by learning and maturing more at home or in a small pre-K setting.

Your pre-K teacher or pediatrician should be able to provide you with an unbiased opinion.

Redshirting: Is it really beneficial?

Most schools suggest your child be 5 years old to register for kindergarten, but more parents these days are “redshirting” their kid, which is the practice of holding a child back a year in order to give them a leg up in school.

But do redshirted kids really have the advantage? Not necessarily, says Snow. He points to studies that show the benefits to redshirting disappear in the first half of elementary school. “By the time the child reaches third grade, they are doing the same as any third grader,” he says.

Parenting expert and psychotherapist Robi Ludwig says parents need to think about their child’s self-esteem when considering whether or not to delay starting kindergarten. “You have to consider: What will help my child feel successful and be successful?” she says.

“You have to consider: What will help my child feel successful and be successful?”

—Robi Ludwig, parenting expert and psychotherapist

Some children are late bloomers, and others suffer from attention disorders. Ludwig suggests consulting an expert if you have any doubts about school readiness.

“There are some kids where it just makes sense [to redshirt],” says Ludwig. “They really do need an extra year to learn to process information. At the end of the day, what’s the big rush?”

What should kids know before kindergarten?

The requirements and laws about starting kindergarten vary across the country, but local school districts often post their own kindergarten readiness requirements on their websites. You can also call and ask the school secretary to send you the curriculum.

Make sure you check out the requirements several months before deciding to enroll so that you have enough time to decide if your child is ready. There are no hard and fast rules about when a child is ready for kindergarten, but there are some common expectations (see below). Having all of the information available from your local school district will help inform your decision.

Is my child ready for kindergarten?

Your child is probably ready to start kindergarten if they:

  • Follow simple directions. It’s important that your child can listen to a teacher and complete instructions. Be aware that children at this age should not be expected to follow complex instructions. “One or possibly two steps is about what young children can generally manage,” says Snow. “Simple instructions means few items or steps and are very specific and concrete.”
  • Can sit still. Your child should be able to remain in one spot long enough to listen to a story and participate in class activities. Temper your expectations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your child should be able to sit completely still for a period of time during class. Sitting still really means that your child can listen to a story or participate in an activity without being a disruption. “A child who is fidgeting but listening to a teacher read a story is great — even a child who may be standing up and walking around, as long as the child is not being disruptive,” Snow says.
  • Use the restroom. Your child should be completely potty trained and able to know when they have to go to the bathroom and be able to manage by themselves.
  • Recognize some letters and numbers. It’s OK if your child isn’t reading when they start school. But they should recognize some of the letters of the alphabet, along with some numbers. Snow says there is no hard and fast rule as far as how many letters or numbers a child should be expected to recognize, so don’t focus on a specific goal here. “Once children start to learn a few letters, the rest follow pretty soon,” he adds.
  • Work on fine and gross motor skills. Your child should have some practice jumping and running, throwing a ball and holding a pencil and scissors. Many children will have had the opportunity to practice these skills in preschool or in another early education program, but Snow says that it is as much about anatomy and physical growth as it is about practice: “Children’s hand shapes and sizes work better with some tools than others, so writing with a large diameter pencil precedes holding an average size pencil.” No kindergarten teacher will expect your child’s skills to be refined at this point.
  • Get along with peers. Ideally, your child knows how to share and take turns, but those are skills that can take a lifetime to master.
  • Handle emotions. It’s normal for a 5-year-old to break down in tears when they’re upset. But it’s important that they know their feelings and have coping strategies. Snow stresses not to expect too much of a young child here. “Young children generally cannot reliably name their emotions,” he says. A better measurement is if “the child’s emotional states — especially those that signal distress, fear and anger — are appropriate given the situation the child is experiencing, and that they change in response to intervention.”
  • Show an interest in learning. They don’t have to be a little Einstein, but it helps if your child enjoys listening to stories, music and books and seems stimulated by the information.

Snow reiterates that talking to the people most familiar with your child (their current teachers, child caregivers and pediatrician, along with their potential future kindergarten teachers) will provide you with the best information in making your decision.

“As parents, we can quickly lose our sense of perspective, so reaching out and having conversations with these other folks helps to establish and maintain a kind of learning support community for the family and child that can nurture them into and throughout school,” Snow says.

“As parents, we can quickly lose our sense of perspective, so reaching out and having conversations with these other folks helps to establish and maintain a kind of learning support community for the family and child that can nurture them into and throughout school.”

—Kyle Snow, early child education specialist

If your child is not ready for kindergarten, consider your options

If you decide your child is not yet ready for kindergarten, it’s important to come up with a game plan for the year. Children who are behind socially or academically should get plenty of exposure to a classroom environment at a preschool or pre-K program. 

“I do think there are a myriad of advantages to spending at least a year in preschool or pre-K,” Snow says.

Concerned parents also need to recognize the difference between meeting and exceeding expectations. Your child does not need to have mastered reading, writing and arithmetic before they start school but should show that they’re focused and stimulated by learning.

“There’s a difference between a child really being ready and a child being more than ready,” says Snow.

And if your child is ready, waiting until they’re older to start school may cause a bright kid to be so bored that they’ll slack off instead of excel in the classroom. Looking out for these signs of kindergarten readiness and consulting with the rest of your child’s support system will help you best decide if your child is ready for kindergarten.