All parents get a little anxious about sending their children off to school for the first time, but it's an especially tough call if your child was born in the second half of the year. Many public school districts require that a child turns 5 by September 1 or December 1 to enroll for kindergarten that fall. But of course this requirement shouldn't be your only guide. You may want to wait a year if you think your child would benefit from having some extra time to develop the skills that will help make him a good student later on. Keep in mind that children develop at different rates, and whether your child is ready for kindergarten based on his or her age has no relationship to his intelligence or future academic success.
To figure out your child's needs, start by talking to other adults who spend time with him. If he's in preschool, your first stop should be a conference with his preschool teacher, who probably has a pretty good sense of where he is developmentally and how that compares with the abilities of children who would be in his kindergarten class. Also ask for the perspectives of friends or family members who know your child well, especially anyone who is a teacher or has worked or volunteered in an elementary school.
If you know what school your child will attend, take the kindergarten tour at the school, paying particular attention to how the children are behaving. Can you picture your child sitting in one of those chairs and joining in an activity? Finally, ask these questions:
1. Can my child listen to simple instructions and then follow them?
2. Can he put on his own coat and go to the bathroom by himself?
3. Is he familiar with a few letters and numbers?
4. Are his fine motor skills developed enough that he can hold a pencil and cut with scissors?
5. Is he interested in books? (Does he sometimes try to "read" a book by telling a story based on the pictures?)
6. Is he curious about new things and receptive to learning?
7. Does he get along well with other children?
8. Can he work together with other children in group activities?
9. Can your child focus on a task for at least 10 to 15 minutes?
10. Can your child able to express his thoughts and needs?
If you answered yes to at least five of these questions and "sometimes" to the rest, your child is ready for kindergarten. Otherwise, he might be better off staying in preschool for another year or enrolling in one of the transitional or pre-K classes now being offered by many private schools.
How can I prepare my child for kindergarten?
The National Education Goals Panel identifies five areas of children's development that are important to success in school: physical wellbeing and development, social and emotional development, approaches towards learning, language development, and general knowledge.
Success in kindergarten depends more on social and communication skills than on any particular academic skills. In order to learn, your child needs to be able to listen, follow directions, and work with other children. Instead of drilling him in ABCs and 1-2-3s, focus on his abilities to communicate and to participate in group activities. Here are some exercises you can do with him so he's better prepared for the big day.
"How do you do?"
Your child will have an easier time in kindergarten if he's learned to be comfortable in groups. If he isn't in preschool, consider enrolling him in a gymnastics, art, dance, or music class. Work with him on being able to give basic information about himself, such as his name, age, and address, so that such questions won't catch him off guard. Being able to write his own name might strengthen your child's sense of self.
"That's a stove, of course!"
In idle moments, play simple naming and counting games, so your child feels at ease with these concepts. You might start with basic objects in your home: Is this a door or a window? Then move to subtler distinctions -- different types of dishes and cutlery -- or to counting games: How many chairs are in the dining room? How many steps are in the staircase?
"Is it big or little?"
Being able to describe things and make distinctions are valuable skills; that's why the characters on "Sesame Street" play "One of these things is not like the other...." Help your child understand and express such concepts as same-versus-different and more-versus-less.
Wiggle those fingers
Precise motor skills will come in very handy when your child learns to write, so now is the time to encourage him to handle things. All sorts of tasks around the house can develop manual dexterity: Let him help you open the mail, put things away, or pour and stir when you're making dinner. You might also teach him to brush his own teeth and hair, and let him practice buttoning and zipping his clothes.
Fill in the blanks
There are plenty of prekindergarten workbooks available, but most experts advise against pushing academics on your child so early unless he has lots of natural enthusiasm. What these materials are good for, though, is familiarizing your child with the way he'll do things in school. In other words, it isn't really the exercises themselves that are useful but the process of picking up a crayon or pencil and using it to express himself.
Once you've decided to enroll your child in kindergarten, visit his new school -- even if it's closed for the summer -- so he can get familiar with the layout and learn his way around the playground. If possible, arrange for him to meet his teacher or a few of his fellow classmates ahead of time, so there will be some familiar faces the first day. A good way to build excitement and enthusiasm is to include your child in back-to-school preparations, such as picking out a new lunch box, clothes, even a few pencils with cool designs on them.
You can also prepare yourself for kindergarten life. Read to your child for at least 10 minutes a day. Limit television time so that your child will become used to doing homework without watching the tube. And make sure that when your child does carry his first lunch in his new backpack, he's eating healthy and nutritious snacks.
University of Minnesota. Center for Early Education and Development. Is My Child Ready For Kindergarten? 2009. http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ceed/publications/questionsaboutkids/Ready_4k_English.pdf
Pre-K Policy Brief #1. Public Education Department of New Mexico. May 2006.
Maxwell KL et al. School Readiness Assessment. Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. January 2004.
Readiness for Kindergarten: Parent and Teacher Beliefs, National Center for Education Statistics, 1995.
U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Helping Your Child Get Ready for School, June 1993.