Is your child ready for kindergarten

Having the legislature set a date for kindergarten eligibility doesn’t keep parents from struggling with the question of whether or not their individual child is ready to start school.

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Kindergarten cutoff date move up
Cathy Downs (Carolina Parent contributing writer)

Melanie Bunn knew her son, Matthew, was ready academically for kindergarten and that his gross motor skills were well-developed, but the Raleigh mom recognized that he wasn’t interested in fine-motor activities.

“He didn’t like writing, coloring or using a glue stick,” Bunn says. “It wasn’t his thing.”

Because Matthew, now 7, had been in half-day preschool two days a week, Bunn also felt he didn’t yet have the stamina for a day-long learning situation.

“So many kids had been in full-time preschool, and I didn’t know if he would have the endurance,” she says. “I wanted Matthew to be successful in school and find it fun and rewarding. I didn’t want him to lose that love of learning.”

She also thought long-term. “It’s not only about kindergarten. It impacts the child when puberty hits and which grade they’ll be in, learning to drive and leaving home.”

For Bunn, knowing that Matthew would be among the first of his peers to do some of these activities wasn’t a positive thing, but being older when leaving home was.

In an effort to ensure that every child is ready to enter kindergarten, the General Assembly passed the Every Child Ready to Learn legislation during the 2007-08 session to reduce student dropout rates in later grades. Beginning with the 2009-10 school year, students must be 5 years old by Aug. 31 to enter kindergarten, a change from the previous Oct. 16 cutoff date.

Still, having the legislature set a date for kindergarten eligibility doesn’t keep parents from struggling with the question of whether or not their individual child is ready to start kindergarten.

Look at the whole child

“Often, families consider holding a child back because of a delay in one area, for example fine motor skills or maturity,” says Deborah Connell, supporting school readiness program coordinator at Project Enlightenment in Raleigh.

Connell recommends that parents look at their child as a whole person.

“If you see one area of need but everything else looks great, focus your energy on improving that one area over the coming months and relay that information to the kindergarten teacher when school begins,” she says.

“If the area of need is significant or you see many areas of need, you may consider talking with your pediatrician about a developmental screening to see if your child may need additional support," she says. "Extra time or holding a child back may be the right thing to do, but significant needs often do not go away with time alone. Intervention is needed."

As a kindergarten teacher at Morrisville Elementary School and a parent of a rising kindergartner, Sue Hayes sees the kindergarten-readiness issue from both sides with regard to her son, Owen, 4.

“I have struggled as many parents do, especially with boys,” Hayes says.

After talking with the counselors at Project Enlightenment and her son’s preschool teacher, Hayes decided that what she thought was a lack of maturity was really just his sensitive personality. She and her husband, Michael, and the preschool teacher worked with Owen on various strategies from Project Enlightenment and have seen improvement in his problem-solving skills.

“Watching him mature this year and become more interested in the academic part and more independent at home and away from home, along with the fact that I know about all the services Wake County has to offer in the area of occupational therapy – for fine motor skills – I feel he is ready to make this jump,” Hayes says.

Supporting school readiness

To help prepare children for kindergarten, Hayes strongly urges parents to read and talk to their children.

“Have meaningful conversations with them. Don’t talk to them or at them, but with them,” she says. “Make them verbalize their needs (and) their wants, and give them basic vocabulary.”

She also recommends that parents have their children follow one- or two-step directions, which helps them become more independent.

Understanding the academic rigors of kindergarten is crucial in helping determine if your child has the emotional and physical maturity to do well.

“I think a lot of parents are shocked at just how much kindergartners are expected to know and do. Ninety percent of kindergarten is academics,” says Ashley Shaffer, also a kindergarten teacher at Morrisville Elementary School.

While some view school readiness solely in terms of how well a child is prepared to meet classroom challenges, others look at the readiness of schools to educate all children.

“Age should be the only criteria to determine entrance into kindergarten. So it’s the school’s responsibility to meet the needs of each child who walks through their doors,” says Kelly Maxwell, associate director at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Hayes and Shaffer explain that teachers use differentiation to accommodate students’ vast range of abilities and knowledge. The same skill is taught to every student in the class, but in different ways and at different levels depending on each child’s ability.

Fostering a smooth transition

In light of the current push to improve schools’ readiness for every student, Maxwell believes it’s important for parents to look at the school to determine if the school will meet their child’s needs.

“In general, I believe that families play an important role in supporting children’s entry into school,” Maxwell says. “Specifically related to kindergarten transition, families help make and support positive relationships between their child and adults and children at the new school through various activities, such as visiting the school with their child, meeting the kindergarten teacher and arranging play dates with other children in the classroom before school starts.”

Gifted 4-year-olds who do not meet the age qualification to enter kindergarten are able to start kindergarten early if they meet certain requirements. If you are considering early enrollment for a child who is 4 by April 16, you must obtain an assessment and provide documentation of the child’s abilities.

“It’s helpful to test your child because you get a very clear idea of your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses,” says Kristen Wynns, a child psychologist with a private practice in Durham. “Even if your child does not meet criteria for early entry, the testing gives parents valuable information about what to focus on in their child’s formative early years in school.”

Visit various school district Web sites to learn more about the process and criteria for early entry to kindergarten.

“Every child is different, and there is no ‘magic answer’ to what is best,” Connell says. “Looking at your child’s personality and skills, talking with your child’s preschool or child-care teacher, and talking with the kindergarten staff at the school your child will attend is the best way to make an informed decision that will be best for your child and family. One size does not fit all.”

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