When my son Sammy started kindergarten, I looked forward to our first parent-teacher conference, imagining all the wonderful things the teacher would say about his interest in history and his precocious verbal skills.
Instead, I found myself teetering on a tiny chair while the teacher warned me that Sammy might have to repeat the year. She explained that he was frustrated by and uninterested in just about everything the class did — a red flag that something was amiss.
Was my bright little boy going to flunk kindergarten, I wondered, because he didn't care about arts and crafts? Was he uninterested or just bored? And should my husband and I agree to have him held back — or "retained" — if that's what his teacher ultimately advised?
Like many parents, I hadn't realized that success in kindergarten depends on many factors, not just intellectual ability. Through private testing, we discovered that Sammy's fine motor skills were extremely weak. We were also told that having him repeat kindergarten would be devastating for him. Instead, we got him the occupational therapy that was recommended, and he went on to have a great year in first grade.
The truth is, development among kindergarten-age children varies tremendously. One child may come to school already able to read, while another can't tell A from Z. And a child's levels of physical, social, and intellectual development may be wildly uneven.
Sammy, for instance, could discuss ancient Troy but couldn't draw a stick figure. What's more, kindergartners can range in age from 4 to 6 because about 5 percent of kids repeat the year and another 7 percent wait a year before starting, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Ideally, a kindergarten program will be flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of all its students. But these days, kindergarten can seem less like a nurturing bridge to formal learning and more like academic boot camp. Increasing pressure to do well on standardized tests in elementary school has pushed the first-grade curriculum down to kindergarten.
"In addition to evaluating a child's social and emotional readiness for first grade, teachers now must consider specific grade-level standards instituted by the state or the school district," says Marilou Hyson, Ph.D., associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in Washington, D.C. As a result, more children are in danger of not passing muster.
However, because kids often make sudden leaps in development later in the year, it can be hard to predict their performance in first grade.
Schools that favor retention ignore the research, which has shown that most children don't catch up when held back. There may be individual cases in which a child benefits, such as if she's missed a lot of school because of illness or a move, or if she has significant delays in all areas of development.
But according to organizations such as NAEYC, the National Education Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists, the best option in most cases is to provide specific support to help the student catch up during the remainder of kindergarten, over the summer, and in first grade.
"Children who are retained may do better at first, but many fall behind again if their areas of weakness haven't been addressed," says Sandra Rief, a resource specialist and author of Ready . . . Start . . . School!. And the social stigma of being held back can have a major impact on a child's attitude. Studies have shown that by the time they enter middle school, kids who repeated kindergarten are more likely to get into trouble, dislike school, and feel bad about themselves.
Most school districts will inform you relatively early in the year if your child is at risk for retention. Ask about any additional services the school can provide and what you can do at home to help. Rief also recommends requesting a student-support-team meeting. These teams — usually made up of the teacher, an administrator, school-support personnel, and the parents — can evaluate the situation, plan a course of action, and follow up on your child's progress.
The final decision about retention at the kindergarten level is usually up to the parents, but check the policy of your school district.
If you decide to have your child repeat the year, it's better to switch teachers or even schools.
"He needs to have a different educational experience, as well as interventions and support to address his areas of need," Rief says. It's also important to explain the plan to your child in a positive way, because your attitude will influence his. Reassure him that you think he'll have a happy and successful year, and work with the teacher to help make that happen.
Here are some of the skills that children are expected to demonstrate by the end of kindergarten, according to educator Rief: