Spring is almost here and so is the season of “kindergarten readiness testing.” As a child psychologist practicing in Durham NC, I start getting phone calls early each year from parents wanting more information about early entry to kindergarten. This year, because North Carolina has changed its cutoff date guidelines and moved the deadline by which a child must turn five to August 31, my phone has been ringing off the hook. Many parents with September/early October babies always assumed their child would start kindergarten in the Fall of 2009. Now they realize, “Oh no, now my kid can’t go to kindergarten!?” “Oh wait, he can, but he has to get tested! What kind of test!?” Enter the stressed out phase for many parents. There are of course parents who say, “Oh well, he’ll just stay in preschool another year.” But others may want to do whatever it takes to get their child into kindergarten this year. Most parents seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Many have mixed feelings on the subject and a lot of questions. “Should I go through this kindergarten evaluation process to see if my child qualifies for early entry?” “Is it helpful to try to send my child, does it really matter?” “I’ve heard my child has to be a genius to get in, so what’s the point?” This article is for you parents who need some guidance in sorting this out. As a child psychologist who does this testing every year, as well as talk to dozens of parents about this issue, I’m going to help you sort through the myths, rumors, and “helpful” suggestions from friends and family. First, let’s start with the pros and cons of early entry.
The advantages of starting your child in kindergarten “early” are often:
• Providing the challenging and enriching curriculum for which a child is ready. If a child is bright and ready for the next stage of learning, it is important to provide that challenging environment at the right time.
• Hitting the “window” for a child’s excitement and readiness. Many times a child who will be turning five in September or October has been anticipating going to kindergarten at age 5. Many of his peers are going to kindergarten this year and it’s helpful to enroll a child when he is excited and ready to go to “big school.”
• Financial – no more paying for expensive daycare and preschool.
• Time – Your child would be taken care of for 6-7 hours a day now leaving more time for parents to work, focus on other siblings, clean the house, get coffee…you get the idea.
The disadvantages of starting your child “early” in kindergarten may be:
• If the child is immature emotionally, socially, or behaviorally, you may be setting your child up for failure or frustration. If your child has demonstrated in preschool or daycare, he is not able to sit and attend to a lesson, get along well with peers, or transition easily from one activity to the next, he may be put in a situation for which he is not ready, and it may set his entire educational experience off to a negative start. (Let alone this child will cause problems for the teacher and the other students who have to deal with his behavior.)
• If the child is not ready academically, again, she will be set up for a very frustrating year. If she is consistently requiring extra attention from the teachers because she does not understand the material, she is likely to develop a negative attitude towards school.
• If for whatever reason, your child is not developmentally ready for kindergarten, you may see other behavioral or emotional problems pop up (i.e., your child acts out because he is not ready for the structure and expectations of kindergarten.)
Early entry to kindergarten is equivalent to a child skipping a grade. Although there is no perfect list of criteria to know whether your child is ready for kindergarten, you want to see that your child:
• Knows her ABC’s and numbers at least 1 – 10. Even better if she can sound out some simple words or recognize some sight words. Also better if she has shown applied math skills (i.e., she has four blocks and you say, “If I gave you two more blocks, how many would you have?” She says, “six.”)
• Has demonstrated the ability to sit for periods of time in a structured setting and attend to a “lesson.”
• Can handle separations from mom and dad well.
• Is able to play well with peers. It’s still normal for children to squabble over toys or fight, but you want to see your child playing well much of the time.
• Has demonstrated the ability to respect adult authority figures (other than you) by following directions and instructions.
• Can handle transitions during the day from one activity to the next.
• Is mature enough to be able to function comfortably with approximately 23 older children throughout a 6-7 hour day.
Finally, if you have carefully weighed the pros and cons of early kindergarten entry, thought about your child’s readiness, and feel your child would benefit from going through the early entry process, here is what to expect. The counties in North Carolina require a “portfolio” that includes samples of the child’s work, letters of recommendation, etc. as well as the testing scores from an IQ and achievement test. The child must score at the 98th percentile or higher on the IQ test and at the 98th percentile or higher in reading or math on the achievement test. One of the great ironies of the early entry process is that your child is required to test at a higher level than most of his peers who simply start kindergarten because their birthdays were a few weeks/months earlier. Again, if your child seems ready emotionally, socially, and behaviorally, and has demonstrated above average academic abilities, you probably want to go through with the kindergarten testing. The good news is this testing is fun for the child. He has no clue how important it is and how you will be holding your breath until you get the results. Most of the kids who test with me leave my office asking, “When do I get to go back again?” The kindergarten testing itself typically takes a total of 2-3 hours, and is usually given on two different days, unless the child’s attention span and activity level allow for a longer session in which both tests are given (with a short break in between). The testing has to occur after April 16th each year. Each county has more information on their websites.
Bottom line: kindergarten is a milestone in your child’s life (and yours). Spend some time reading and researching this process, and then do what you think is best for your little one.