When should you start kindergarten?

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 ...