What Kids Should Know Before Kindergarten

If you're enrolling your child in school for the first time this fall, these are the basic kindergarten requirements they'll be expected to know.

It is not uncommon that come fall, parents may be anxious about whether their children are ready for kindergarten. After all, entering school often means big changes for little kids, from learning to read and write to navigating playground politics. And not all kids will approach schooling at the same level; some kids will already know how to spell their names, while others may struggle to recite the alphabet without help.

While you can find myriad lists of "what kids should know before kindergarten," the reality is much simpler. Most typically developing children will have mastered the skills they need for kindergarten readiness, and most of those who haven't will do so with some help from parents and teachers. The small subset of kids who still struggle with the requirements of kindergarten can be aided by formal special education evaluations and assistance.

An image of a girl drawing on paper while sitting by her teacher in kindergarten.
Getty Images.

Think 'Readiness' Instead of 'Requirements'

There isn't one definite list of "kindergarten requirements." In many places, age-eligible kids can't be prevented from attending kindergarten even if a school district's screening suggests they're not quite ready. The things kids should know before kindergarten track the typical developmental milestones for children their age. You can see the full list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but by age 5, most kids can do things such as:

  • Tell a simple story in full sentences
  • Differentiate between reality and pretend
  • Count 10 things
  • Know their first and last name
  • Stand on one foot

Broad signs of school readiness

Generally speaking, kindergarten readiness breaks down into areas like separating from parents, socialization with other kids, and communication. Kindergartners need to be able to express their wants and needs to their teachers, manage their own clothing in the bathroom, and follow simple directions. Children who have been in preschool or pre-K will likely have practiced these skills. Unless your child's teacher has raised an issue, parents and caregivers shouldn't worry that a child isn't ready for kindergarten.

While having some exposure to these pre-academic skills is helpful as kids transition to kindergarten, it's not a hard requirement, and teachers are used to kids arriving with a wide range of experience.

"One of the reasons I love teaching kindergarten is because it is sort of like everyone enters with a blank slate," says Mollie Bruhn, an early childhood educator in New York City. "I think the last thing we need to do is put more pressure on families or kids," she says.

Kindergarten screenings and evaluations

School districts generally screen rising kindergartners for academic and developmental readiness in the spring or summer. If there are things a child needs to work on, parents can practice with them before school starts, says Jamie Broach, MA, CCC-SLP, the preschool and school-age speech-language pathologist for a public school district in southeast Ohio.

In terms of communication, Broach says she'd expect a child starting kindergarten to be able to be understood by an adult who doesn't know them well and to be able to follow directions with two steps. For instance, "get a pencil and put it on the desk."

Children who haven't been in center-based care may have had fewer opportunities to practice some skills, such as being around other kids or following a routine. For these kids, Broach said, some structured activities—like storytime at the library or swim lessons—can be beneficial. She also encouraged all parents to read to their children.

Parents don't need to prepare their kids for a kindergarten evaluation, Broach says, beyond telling them the procedural details. In addition to advising individual families on their children, school districts use the results of the evaluations to plan out their classes and understand what support students might need, she said.

When Children Should Start Kindergarten

In 19 states and the District of Columbia, kindergarten is the first year of required formal schooling. In some states, all students must enroll in kindergarten the year they turn 5 years old. However, in other states, like Ohio, kindergarten is mandatory, but school enrollment isn't required until age 6. This means parents have discretion over when exactly to enroll their children. They may enroll a child in kindergarten once they turn five but must enroll them in school once they're six.

"Redshirting" or delaying kindergarten

Some parents may delay kindergarten enrollment for kids they don't believe are ready for school yet, a practice known colloquially as "redshirting." This tends to be more common for children of affluent, highly educated parents—they retain a child who would be among the youngest in their grade. Research isn't clear that delaying entry to kindergarten in these cases is beneficial, and doing it requires families to pay for another year of private childcare.

In one study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that children who were redshirted tended to have more emotional and behavioral problems than children who were not. The general conclusion of the study is that kids who are delayed school entry tend to miss out on critical learning stimuli that contribute to demotivation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend redshirting children. In fact, they point out that any perceived benefits of giving a child an academic boost by delaying their start to kindergarten may be overshadowed by potential behavioral problems. The AAP also says that kids who are redshirted may be missing out on their best learning environment—other kids their own age.

Start Early Education at Home

The AAP says that early education "starts and ends at home," meaning that as parents, you have lots of beneficial influence over what your children can be prepared for by the time they reach kindergarten. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Read to your children every day.
  • Have conversations with your child about their day.
  • Plan activities together that include following steps and directions.
  • Discuss the weather, days of the week, and important dates.
  • Teach your child basic hygiene like washing hands.

When your child is old enough and ready to attend kindergarten, you will be amazed at how much they will learn. So, if you have concerns that your child is behind in some areas, just know that no two kids will enter kindergarten with the same skill sets. Teachers are trained to help all of the kids in their classes get to their appropriate academic places.

If you have concerns about learning delays or other issues, talk to your school and find out what kinds of services may be available to help your child.

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