Should my four year old start kindergarten early or wait a year?

Q: Our youngest son will be four on September 27th. In our school district, it is required that children need to be four years old before the first of September of that school year. We are trying to decide if we should petition to get our son in this next school year or to hold him back and have him start next year. Thanks!

A: Your son will be a very young Kindergarten student - he will still be 4 at the start of the school year.  With that said, his mere age doesn't need to be the sole qualifier for whether he should begin Kindergarten or wait another year.  What you will need to assess is something a bit deeper and harder to ascertain.  You want to honestly think about your son's social-emotional growth.  That is, how well is he able to relate to peers, share in their interests, take turns, handle losing a game, handle differences in opinion, be able to take direction from a teacher, handle corrections from a teacher, etc? The expectation is that by the time a child is ready to begin Kindergarten, he should be able to express his feelings in words as opposed to yelling, grabbing, crying, or throwing himself on the ground.  

Having a son in Kindergarten this school year myself, I am very aware and in touch with the fact that there is a level of demand on him that was not present in pre-school.  He is expected to be able to sit in his seat, at a table with 2-3 other peers, share crayons, listen to lessons, follow classroom rules and a classroom schedule.  In pre-school, the emphasis was on absorbing pre-reading and pre-writing skills that could be expanded on in Kindergarten.  Also, 80% of his day was about playing. That's where the social-emotional growth takes place.  It's not  that there are specific lessons on social and emotional growth, but children learn through play and through teachers' direction to share or wait a turn, or be assigned a job, etc.  These are the times that are similar to when you’re at the park or playground and you intervene when your child is having a hard time negotiating a turn or resolving a conflict over a toy, etc.  During the latter years of pre-school, you will also find that this is when your child will ask for a play-date with particular peers because of a shared interest in a cartoon, action figure, sport, or anything else.

On one hand, you may want your child to enter Kindergarten and begin learning how to correctly form his letters, identify phonetics, numbers, and colors and keep up with the curriculum. However, in Kindergarten, many school districts begin learning sight reading words as early as the first month of school! On the other hand, there is a bigger academic expectation on your child in Kindergarten than there is in pre-school.  Do you think your son will be able to handle that demand?  Part of this comes from being exposed and a bigger part comes from his being comfortable in his own skin and being confident in his ideas.  

To help you to begin to make your decision, answer these questions honestly:

  • Does he get along with other classmates? (e.g., Is he able to start a conversation? Is he able to maintain a short conversation?) Can he sit still for a few minutes?
  • Can he ask for help?
  • Can he write his name?
  • Does he know the alphabet? 
  • Can he recognize letters in isolation?
  • Does he know any of the sounds that letters make? 
  • How high can he count? 
  • Does he speak correctly most of the time?
  • Is his vocabulary adequate for his age? 

In the end, you and your spouse need to be comfortable in your decision based on your son's level of social, emotional and cognitive readiness. Starting early has its pros and cons, as does waiting a year. Good luck with your decision!


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