A Kindergarten Age Guide for Parents: When Kids Should Start School

The age of kindergarteners in the U.S. ranges from 4 to 6 years old depending on lots of factors. Here's what to know when deciding the right age for your child to start school.

Group of Kids Running In To School Building
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Not so long ago, a friend asked me whether I plan to send my youngest child, my third, to kindergarten on time, or if I would be choosing to hold her back. The question didn't surprise me. "Redshirting," or delaying entrance to kindergarten by a year, is not uncommon where I live, and my daughter would be making the cutoff in our district by a scant five days. That made it likely she'd be the very youngest in her grade, something I've come to see could actually be a positive thing academically.

But the timing of my friend's inquiry did throw me a bit: My daughter was just 2 ½ years old. Surely that should have bought us some time to decide whether she'll be ready at almost-5 for kindergarten.

Still, you can't blame parents of children on the younger side for their grade for worrying early and often, particularly when we have to suffer through anxiety-inducing commercials for websites and other wares peddled to get our kids prepared for kindergarten, which sounds increasingly like an intimidating, unforgiving place rather than the warm welcome to education that it used to be.

Here are a few things I've learned from interviewing moms who've already made the decision of when to start their child in kindergarten:

Know your state's kindergarten age rules.

According to Superpages, an online source of local information from across the country, a total of 32 states in the United States require that a child be 5 years old on or before September 1 in the year he or she starts kindergarten, with 11 states having a cutoff date between September 1 and October 15. There are also 7 states that offer local schools the option set their own required dates for when children should start school.

You can start by finding your state's rules here, but it's still worth a call to your school district's office as these rules can change. You can also find out if special exceptions can be granted by the school principal, as was the case for one of the moms Parents interviewed.

Think about down the line, not just kindergarten.

Will you be as happy with your decision, whichever way you lean, when your child enters older grades? I admit, I didn't love the thought of my daughter being a youngin' in, say, fifth grade with redshirted boys who are a year (and then some) older, or sending my 17-year-old baby off to college.

On the flip side, there could have been some downsides to holding her back: After talking to a couple of parents of teens, I wasn't crazy about the thought of her getting a driver's license at the beginning of junior year of high school, a potential distraction during a crucial academic year for college.

Get the preschool teacher's input when making a decision.

Some parents interviewed agreed with their teachers' assessments that another year of preschool would help, whether with developing fine motor skills or confidence or maturity. Others felt that these weren't necessarily good enough reasons to delay kindergarten, and were glad they trusted their own instincts that their kids were ready enough.

Remember every child and family are unique.

State regulations aside, your child's mere age doesn't need to be the sole qualifier for whether he or she should begin kindergarten or wait another year.

"What you will need to assess is something a bit deeper and harder to ascertain," explains Dr. Elizabeth Matheis, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist. "You want to honestly think about your child's social-emotional growth," she says. "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."

Here are a few questions Matheis recommends answering honestly to help you to begin to make your decision on when to start kindergarten:

  • 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 partner need to be comfortable in your decision based on your child's level of social, emotional and cognitive readiness. Starting early has its pros and cons, as does waiting a year.

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