Raising a 5-Year-Old Child: Behavior, Milestones, and Development

Your little one is heading off to kindergarten this year—where did the time go? Here's what to expect when raising a 5-year-old.

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01 of 11

The Year Ahead: Age 5

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Exciting times are ahead as your little one officially begins their school life. Over the next year, your child will become more independent, conquer challenges, and cross developmental milestones. Here's what you can expect when raising a 5-year-old.

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Physical Development

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"Physical development consists of both gross motor and fine motor development," says Cheryl Wu, M.D., of LaGuardia Place Pediatrics in New York City. "And while every child develops at their own pace, there are certain milestones I expect most of my patients (90 to 95%) to achieve by their fifth birthday."

By age 5, a child has largely developed gross motor skills; they can jump high, run, climb well, and start doing more advanced movements like ballet, gymnastics, or karate. A 5-year-old can draw a triangle and write their own name, and they usually have a preferred handedness by now. (Some children remain ambidextrous at this age.)

"Most teachers want kindergarteners to know how to hold a pencil correctly and to be able to use safety scissors, and those are tasks a parent can practice at home," says Brenda Rogers, M.D., a general pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, MO. Even though children this age are developing better coordination, they still need oversight to avoid serious injuries.

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Your 5-year-old is becoming more independent, which means they enjoy being around other family members and friends more. They might test boundaries or ask to do things on their own. Some you should encourage (like making their own bed—don't worry if it's not perfect) and some you need to stand firm on (like bathing alone, which can be a safety issue).

With your child starting kindergarten, pay attention to their ability to follow directions and get along with others, says Carl Sheperis, Ph.D., the director of doctoral programs for Walden University's School of Counseling and Social Service. "If you see your child becoming more aggressive or oppositional once they start school, figure out the reasons behind the behavior now. It is much easier to address any behavioral issues now than it will be in the teen years."

It's important to reinforce good behavior through praise, and to set clear limits so that your child knows what to expect.

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Black mother packing book bag with her son for school.
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Kindergartners have usually mastered speech sounds, and people should understand what they are saying. "A 5-year-old will have a pretty vast vocabulary," says Lauren Krause, Chief of Speech-Language Pathology at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. "If you're still concerned and counting how many words they can say, then that is a clear sign of a delay."

Five-year-olds can usually express themselves clearly, give explanations, retell stories, and put together sentences to make themselves understood. "Kindergartners are also starting the reading process, so it's important to continue to read to your child and work on their own reading capabilities," says Krause. A slight lisp at this age is normal, but if it persists beyond age 6, talk to your pediatrician about the possibility of speech therapy.

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Young boy wearing a mask at a doctors appointment

Your child is entering kindergarten, so it's important that they're up-to-date on all required immunizations. Every state has its own standards, but your child's pediatrician should guide you.

After the doctor checks if any vaccinations are needed, your child will be weighed and measured. A 5-year-old typically gains about 4 pounds and grows about 2 inches during the year. There will also be vision and hearing tests performed, as well as a tuberculosis test and a blood test for lead poisoning. Your doctor will ask your child some questions to see how their speech is progressing, check for any signs of a delay or impediment, and analyze how their gross and fine motor skills are developing.

Your little one might also be playing sports now, and there's a potential for dental injury. If your child's tooth is chipped, broken, or knocked out, contact your pediatric dentist immediately. This can save the tooth and prevent infection. If the tooth is knocked out, rinse it off with cool water and, if possible, replace it in the socket immediately (hold it there with clean gauze if necessary). If you can't put it back, place it in a container with cold milk, water, or saliva. Then head to the dentist. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, baby teeth should not be replanted because of the potential for subsequent damage to the developing permanent tooth.

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little girl eating a snack at daycare

Five-year-olds can handle adult portions, but keep them manageable and minimize snacking. "Kids this age have a tendency to fill up on snacks, which interferes with mealtime," says Amy Marlow, a New York-based registered dietician and certified nutritionist serving as an advisor for Happy Family, the nation's leading premium organic baby and toddler food maker. "Kids should be eating three meals a day, along with two healthy snacks."

Expand your child's horizons when it comes to trying new foods. Limit items high in fat and sugar, and concentrate on serving fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and dairy products. "You want to choose different foods for them to try," says Marlow. "If they don't want to try it at first, don't give up. When they're hungry, they will eat what's in front of them—even the healthy stuff!" Establish a family mealtime so that your child considers eating well a fun activity.

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Once your child turns 5, they'll be sleeping about 11 hours each night. Although they won't be napping anymore, quiet time in the late afternoon is still beneficial. Whether they sit with some books or lie down quietly, be sure they get some time to rest, says Kim West, LCSW-C, aka The Sleep Lady. "This will help avoid any meltdowns before dinner."

Wake your child somewhere between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., depending on what time school starts. Many parents deal with kids who are waking up too early, a habit that West suggests nipping in the bud. "Lack of sleep affects their learning and memory abilities, so it's important that they get enough sleep."

A common complaint from elementary school teachers is that students are too tired in class. "Adjust your child's exact bedtime and wake-up time to coincide with your family schedule and their school-start time," says West.

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Social Development

kids playing in grass outside

By age 5, children are socially interactive and communicative. They can follow simple games with rules and begin to enjoy board games. The biggest milestone for this age is going to kindergarten. "This can be a huge adjustment socially and even the most gregarious child may feel shy and reticent," says Jessica Mercer Young, Ph.D., a research scientist at Education Development Center in Newton, MA. "Having your child spend time in the new classroom, meeting the teacher, talking about the transition, reading books about going to kindergarten, and setting up playdates or opportunities to meet other children before school starts are all very helpful."

Dr. Young suggests that once school starts, set up a playdate with someone that your child has expressed an interest in getting to know, and help foster the relationship. "Having one good friend in kindergarten can make the transition to school easier for all," she says.

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Kids running to school bus

The sky's the limit as to what your child will be learning. Many of the lessons (letters, numbers, colors) are subjects they might have already mastered in preschool. They'll start writing upper and lowercase letters and, eventually, words, their name, their address, and your phone number. Kindergartners learn how to match the sound to each letter; identify, draw, cut, and name shapes; classify and group objects according to characteristics; and use their five senses to identify items.

Your child will begin learning to read, which can be a daunting task for both parent and child. How can you help them? Increase their vocabulary, says Susan Cooper, M.Ed., early child development expert at Applied Scholastics. "This doesn't mean sitting with a dictionary and memorizing words. What it means is learning new words, using the new words, and seeing the new words. When parents go into a grocery store with their children, make it a learning experience by showing what unusual fruits and vegetables are there and using the new words in conversation. The new words will show up in some reading assignment and your child will know what the word means. The more words a child knows, the easier reading becomes."

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Lots of children this age haven't yet learned how to negotiate and get their point across, and they instead resort to whining. Although it can be annoying for parents, it's a normal developmental stage that Dr. Sheperis says is best to ignore.

A useful strategy is to get down to your child's level and explain that you simply cannot understand them when they whine. You'll be validating their feelings but at the same time letting them know that whiny behavior doesn't get them what they want.

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Even though your child is in school now, you should still use playtime as learning time, says Dr. Rogers. You can do this by pointing out letters and numbers when you see a sign at the park or grocery store, making up stories or songs as you walk around your neighborhood and most importantly sharing a book together. "Read, read, read, and then read some more to your child. They love it, they learn from it, and you get to ask questions to stimulate their imaginations," says Dr. Rogers.

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