When should you start kindergarten?

Which skills are kindergarten essentials?
Which skills are kindergarten essentials?
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Deciding when to send your child off to full-fledged school can be an agonizing process. Will he fit in with his peers developmentally? Is she supposed to be able to read? Write? Conjugate? What if she's the only one who doesn't like to share and no one wants to play with her? Is it more beneficial to start early or start late? Does it even matter?

Real quick: She needn't know how to conjugate.


Aside from that, it can sometimes be unclear exactly which skills a 5-year-old needs to succeed from the outset. All parents want their children to begin official schooling on the right foot -- a kindergarten experience can affect the rest of their school career. It's where they really start to learn what it is to succeed or fail academically, and no one wants to tip the scales toward the latter.

So how do you know when to start? Is it simply a matter of age, or are there other, more subjective criteria to consider?

People differ on their viewpoints regarding the best time to enter school, but there are certain guidelines that can greatly help in the decision-making process. Some are subjective, and some are more concrete. The concrete ones, of course, are easier to navigate, so let's start there: What does the school district think about when your child should start the big K?


Official Guidelines

Determining when to send your child to school can be a tough decision, but in the United States (and many other places around the world), the school system can at least offer some helpful hints. Is your child three and a half? She doesn't belong in kindergarten. Is she five? She's more than welcome.

Easy, right?


Not always. The issue that can make these guidelines a little bit hazier has to do with cut-off dates. In most schools, your child has to be five by either Sept. 1 or Oct. 1 of the school year in question. Cut-off dates do vary, but Oct. 1 is usually the latest one you'll find. This deadline, for many parents, makes the kindergarten decision an easier one; but for others, it actually complicates the issue.

If your child will turn five on Sept. 30, she'll likely be the youngest in her class, perhaps by an entire year. Does this mean she'll be behind all of the other kids in development and have a harder time than she needs to?

And on the other hand, if you wait a year before starting, will that delay her mental growth or will it actually give her a nice leg up in academic confidence since she'll likely be at the head of the class?

Many parents who face this predicament go with the leg-up approach. Recent research, however, shows that any resulting academic advantage is temporary, fading within a few months of starting school [source: Science Daily].

So while age is certainly a helpful guideline, it's typically not the most crucial one. Meeting the cut-off date is really only the start of the decision-making process. In the end, it's all about your child's individual stage of development, or, in the jargon, his or her "kindergarten readiness."

That's where you really come in ...


Parent Knows Best

The decision to enroll your child in kindergarten may start with date of birth, but it doesn't end there. For most parents, it's not just about starting school; it's about starting school on the right foot.

A child who is thrust into an environment where everyone -- except for him -- can count, operate safety scissors and sit still for a good 10 minutes is likely in a position to lose self-esteem, and that can have long-term effects [source: Gesell].


Every single child in the world develops at a different rate [source: Gesell]. The differences can be big or small, and just because one child can count at the age of 5 and another isn't quite there yet doesn't mean there's a problem. It simply means he may not be ready to start kindergarten just yet.

In other words, determining your child's kindergarten readiness is ultimately about what you see, hear and, sometimes, smell. A child who is ready to enter formal schooling is, for a start, fully potty trained, can speak clearly and in complete sentences, and is able to focus on a single, simple task to completion. He or she is at least pretty good at sharing (well, most of the time), can work in groups, and is able to follow directions. If all of this describes your child, you may just have a kindergartener on your hands.

There are lots of other signs of readiness, too. To learn about some of the other criteria you might consider in your assessment, see 5 Things to Know on the First Day of Kindergarten.

And if you decide you don't quite have a kindergartener on your hands? No need to fret. As you surely have noticed by now, children can change dramatically week to week, and even day to day. If you check the criteria again in a month or two, you may just find it is, in fact, the perfect time to enroll.

Just remember to have fun with it. "Checking the criteria" will likely get you different results from "playing the super-big-time-crazy number game."

For more information on kindergarten, child development, and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Author's Note

As a writer who is also mother to a small child, this topic posed some interesting challenges in the way of empathy vs. objectivity. As someone who will have to make the kindergarten decision in the near future, what do I want to know in order to help my child succeed? On the other hand, what do I want to hear about my child's relative ability level? Often, they're not the same thing.

Researching and writing this article was a study in balancing fact and reassurance. In the end, I felt my ability to get into the mind of my reader with relative confidence and ease proved beneficial to the process, providing a path to an even-handed approach to what can sometimes, especially in the age of the "academic kindergarten," be a sensitive topic.


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More Great Links


  • Geiser, Traci. "10 Kindergarten Readiness Skills Your Child Needs." Education. (May 22, 2012) http://www.education.com/magazine/article/kindergarten-readiness-secrets/
  • Gisler, Peggy and Marge Eberts. "Kindergarten Readiness Checklist." Family Education. (May 22, 2012) http://school.familyeducation.com/kindergarten/school-readiness/38491.html
  • Kindergarten readiness: Is your child ready for school? Baby Center. (May 22, 2012) http://www.babycenter.com/0_kindergarten-readiness-is-your-child-ready-for-school_67232.bc
  • National Vaccine Program Office: Immunization Laws. CDC. (May 22, 2012) http://www.hhs.gov/nvpo/law.htm
  • Starting Kindergarten Later Gives Student Only a Fleeting Edge, Study Finds. Science Daily. Aug. 18, 2008. (May 24, 2012) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080818184420.htm
  • What Does My Child's Stage of Development Have to do With His Readiness for School? Gesell Institute of Human Development (via Education.com). (May 22, 2012) http://www.education.com/reference/article/does-my-childs-stage-development-readiness/