Parkland Press

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Thursday, April 25, 2013 by DENISE CONTINENZA Special to The Press in Opinion

Kindergarten: Ready or not?

Every time I conduct a program for parents of soon-to-be kindergarteners, two questions inevitably come up.

One is, "My child is so smart, I am afraid she will be bored in kindergarten. Should I put her right in first grade?"

To this, I usually respond, that given the structure and higher demands of kindergarten compared to what it was years ago, this child is very ready for the pace of today's kindergarten.

The second question a parent always poses is, "I think I want to wait another year to make sure my child is really ready for kindergarten. What should I do?"

This question is not as easily answered because readiness for school is quite complex, and the decision to "redshirt" a kindergartener is a very personal one, specific to each child and family.

Some families opt to wait until their child is 5 or 6 to enter kindergarten. Sometimes the decision to do so is based upon a parent's concern their child is developmentally behind his or her peers. Compared to other children, he or she may have fewer academic skills in place or have a harder time controlling emotions or separating from parents.

In this case, another year of preschool may benefit the child, assuming he or she will be participating in a high-quality early learning program at least some of the time.

On the other hand, if a child's "unreadiness" is due to a physical problem or developmental delay, waiting to enter formal school could postpone getting the child an accurate diagnosis or a connection with resources such as learning support.

The earlier that developmental, behavioral or physical issues can be addressed, the greater are the chances for helping the child overcome the problem and be better prepared for school.

In other cases, families are pretty sure that their child is on target for kindergarten, but they want to wait another year so allowing their child to have an advantage over his or her peers.

Perhaps having one more years to grow or practice certain skills will provide him or her with better opportunities for sports or becoming valedictorian at graduation.

And they would rather their child be one of the oldest in their class rather than the youngest so they can reach significant milestones ahead of their friends such as driving a car, getting a job, etc.

In general, research shows there is no significant advantage to this and, in some cases, being older is shown to lead to negative outcomes.

After pouring over studies related to delaying the start of kindergarten, I found two conclusions researchers have come to regarding redshirting children before kindergarten: it really depends on the child and his or her situation and more research is needed.

Arguments can be made for both sides, and what makes the outcomes of this practice so difficult to assess is the fact every child is subject to so many different variables in his or her life.

How does family structure, birth order, socioeconomic status, physical characteristics and life events figure into the short-term and long-range impacts of starting school later?

So, how do I respond to the parent in the kindergarten readiness program who poses this question?

I explain kindergarten teachers will tell you they want children to come to school with a zest for learning by being curious, inquisitive and eager.

They need to be able to control their impulses and emotions to some degree although it is quite normal for a 5 year old to become frustrated at times.

Academic skills are important and vary by school district, but a child should demonstrate interest in books, writing and numbers.

The No. 1 thing parents can do is to observe their child – not just at home but in a variety of settings. Notice the patterns or consistency of behaviors.

Talk with your child's preschool teacher, Sunday School teacher or other adults involved in his or her life. Get their input.

Take note of what your child does well and what things challenge him or her.

Talk with the school or kindergarten teacher about your observations.

If in the end, you decide to wait another year to send your child to school, it is important that he or she spend the next year in an environment that supports optimal development.

A high-quality preschool program and a home environment that encourages reading, conversation and hands-on learning are the kinds of things that will advance a child's readiness for school.

And if concerns exist about the child's development, a consultation with your pediatrician or local intermediate unit is highly recommended.

School readiness is not something that just happens. It requires that adults set the stage and orchestrate the performance.

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Editor's note: Denise Continenza, M. Ed. is a family and consumer sciences educator with the Penn State Extension, Lehigh County.