Is my child ready for Kindergarten? Should we start school early? Or wait a year?

I had the joy of being a guest on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast this week, talking about the difficult decisions we have as parents of choosing schools for our kids. Public? Private? Home school? Other? (You can check out the episode here… and if you don’t know about C+C and its lovely blog for young mothers, look here!) I got a couple emails after the podcast, with variations of this question:

“Dear Bronwyn,

My kiddo is smart (reading already!) and I think she’s ready for school. She has a (late summer/fall) birthday, and I’m not sure whether to put her in Kinder yet, or wait a year. If we have a choice, should we put her in? I don’t want her to be bored and she seems ready. Any thoughts?

-KinderKonfused”

Dear KK,

The year our eldest was due to start Kindergarten, they changed the birthdate requirements in our state. We had thought we would be waving her off with a tiny pink backpack that Fall, and all of a sudden the rules changed and she we weren’t. And I. Was. Mad.

She was an articulate, confident, smart kiddo… and we were all ready for her to start school. Given that her birthday was so close to the cut off, I looked into lobbying for her to start early, but got shut down fairly quickly. Apparently, I wasn’t the first Mom to feel her child was “special” and should be hanging with the bigger kids. The state then rolled out a “transitional kindergarten” program for those “extra young kindergartners” and I rolled my eyes and enrolled her. What choice did we have?

I mention this to say that if I’d had a choice, we would have enrolled her early. And, in hindsight, I think that if I’d had the choice, I would have chosen wrong. Here’s why:

We are now several years into our schooling journey, and I have never once wished my child were LESS mature than she is for the social challenges she is facing. If anything, with every new year that rolls around, I’m grateful she has that extra year. Academics aside (I’ll get to that in a bit), I think it’s easier to deal with second grade pressures when you’re 7-turning-8 than when you’re 6-turning-7. And in the middle school and high school years, an extra year of knowing-your-own-voice and the extra brain development that comes with growth which is proven stand them in better stead in maturity of decision making (read about teen brain here. Or for the science-heavy paper, read here.) In 100% of cases, 18 year old you was capable of more mature and complex decision-making than 17 year old you… which I think is a great reason to be one year older when picking colleges, jobs, and making your transition into independent adulthood.

But, you ask, what if your kid is smart and gifted and you think they will be bored—and worse yet, a disengaged brat—because class isn’t challenging enough for them?

A few thoughts on this (from someone who finished school at 16 herself. And I wasn’t bored. But in truth I suffered in other ways because of it…)

  • Teachers are fantastic. They have taught brilliant kids and challenged kids and everything in-between, and more and more I’m learning to trust their ability to find ways to challenge the kids in their class. My kid may be brilliant at arithmetic, but he’s never done geography/social studies/reading comp before and there are still many things for him to learn from this teacher and these peers.
  • There’s a world of things for kids to learn about beyond the classroom, and often the task of keeping kids engaged means cracking open new doors and letting them explore. The library is our great friend here. Supervised use of the internet is brilliant too (or if you have the courage, Pinterest. Shoot me now.) And there’s nothing like our great friend BOREDOM to cultivate creativity and imagination in kids, too.
  • For what it’s worth, if our kids want to go further and learn more, we try to encourage them in skills they are not going to learn in school already so that we don’t create or worsen the threat of boredom. Can they learn a different language? Tackle programming? Become the local tiny expert on fly fishing? We have one kid who is awesome at math… but we want to try and keep school math interesting to him as long as possible so we made it a rule that he was NOT ALLOWED TO DO HIS BIG SISTER’S HOMEWORK. Maybe that seems weird. But we put him in school at the same age as his peers (not early!) and we want him to be learning alongside his peers and from his peers as well as he can for as long as he can.

In short: I believe there’s a lot to be said for resisting prodigy-culture. Garrison Keillor’s famous line about  Lake Woebegon being a place where “all the children are above average” is funny because it’s so true. We live in a culture which wants and needs our kids to be above average. We all want to know our kid is going to do well in life—better than we did, we hope! We love our special snowflakes (I ADORE mine!) and no-one is better than seeing and knowing and wanting to develop their gifts than we parents are. BUT there is much to say for letting them be a kid. Letting them play. Letting them be bored. Letting them be average (or just a little above average), and if you have the chance… giving them an extra year to grow up before life throws all its non-academic curve balls their way. So much of early parenthood is about worrying your kid “meets developmental milestones” and if possible, exceeds them. I just don’t think it’s helpful to think about kindergarten that way.

That’s my two-cents worth, and if any of that is helpful or encouraging to you… I’m glad 🙂

Grace and peace to you, mama. You’re doing a great job.

-Bronwyn

Photo credit: Pexels.com

9 thoughts on “Is my child ready for Kindergarten? Should we start school early? Or wait a year?

  1. Good take on this, Bronwyn. My second child had to do a 3rd year of preschool because her birthdate missed the cut-off by 4 days. Then she was horribly bored in kindergarten; she came home every day hating school entirely. We transferred her to a private school, hoping for the best; she was bored in 1st grade. The principal sent her to 2nd grade for reading and math during that school year, saying that the classroom teacher couldn’t keep challenging our daughter when she was so much further along in her academic abilities than the rest of the class. She urged my husband and I to consider having her skip 2nd grade entirely. We did.

    There were 3 main considerations. One, the academics. Straight 100s this early on wasn’t good because then she didn’t learn how to fail or even that she could fail. (We’d seen the effect of this with our older daughter: despite our attempts to supplement the curriculum, she wasn’t adequately challenged until 9th grade!) Two, the principal, teachers, and other people who assessed her (without her knowledge) recommended this move due to her social maturity and academic ability. They had rarely allowed this in the past, so we knew we were dealing with an unusual situation. Third, the social situation of the first grade was not desirable. The gender ratio was 2 to 1, boys to girls. There were little cliques already forming. (Yuck.) She had made no friends in that grade during the year-and-a-half she was there. The new grade had a better balance of the two genders.

    Her third grade year was great. She made close friends. Socially and academically, she did great. Fourth grade, not so much. The private school made many, many changes that lowered the academic standards, and she was not being challenged (again). Both of her best friends were leaving at the end of that school year, due to the academic situation. We have excellent public schools in our area, her older sister was already going to transfer to the public high school, and our younger daughter was begging to go to public school 5th grade. Things seem to be going okay now that she’s been accepted into the official “gifted” program and is pulled from the normal classroom and sent to the gifted teacher once a week. She’s finally loving school again!

    The issue we’re dealing with, though, is that 6th grade is middle school. She’ll be 10 when she starts middle school. She’ll be 13 when she starts high school, turning 14 after the first month. That’s young, yes, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t slightly worried about it. BUT she is unusually mature for her age. That’s not me talking. That’s educators, teachers, other “outsiders” who have observed her interact with peers and adults.

    Because the 6th grade being in middle school will be new for this school district that particular year, there’s a lot of consideration among educators about how to help the 6th graders adjust, navigate the system, etc. There’s a lot of pressure to get this right and there will be a lot of added attention from parents and educators. The other thing that helps is knowing that one of her best friends from the previous school will also be at that middle school, and they’ll be able to navigate some of this together. (The other girl’s older sisters have gone through public school, too, so the parents know what they’re dealing with in middle school, and we also have the benefit of having had another middle schooler already.) Plus, she’ll finally have the opportunity to start honors/preAP classes, different electives, and other interesting extracurricular activities that she wants and that we haven’t had the means or energy to do. She’d have to wait another year otherwise. Is this ideal? No. But it’s doable.

    Honestly, I don’t regret moving her forward a grade. I feel fairly certain that we can help her deal with the challenges of being younger: not entirely certain, though, but mostly. (Are the outcomes of our parenting ever 100% guaranteed?!)

    I’m not sure there’s an ideal way to handle those late summer/early fall birthdays, only ways that might work in a particular situation. I agree that the prodigy culture is problematic. I simply wanted to share my perspective from the point of view of someone who DID put their kid ahead a grade.

    • I so appreciate this, Laura. Your daughter’s situation sounds a lot like the situation my parents faced with me, I think. Obviously I have no way of knowing what it would have been like to REMAIN with my year rather than being put up and what that would have meant in terms of school and friendships… but I trust that my parents (like you) really did weigh the options and made the best decision they could. I think what stands out to me from both your and my experience, though, is that there was room to re-evaluate and adjust LATER as more info about the kid’s ability/interest and the educational options became available. I think erring on the side of taking-it-slow and then accelerating as one sees need and opportunity is a better route than starting out too young or too fast. Your daughters are really lucky to have a Mom like you in their corner <3

      • Thanks. I wasn’t certain how my essay-length comment would sound! Being a parent and having to make these decisions is tough. Much prayer has to go into it, and trusting that God, the perfect parent, will give us wisdom with these little ones. (Or not so little ones. My older daughter is taller and weighs more than I do! She can pick me up!)

    • (Also just to say that one of the (many!) reasons we chose Spanish Immersion school was because our older-than-average kids may have had reading and math down BUT THEY DIDNT KNOW SPANISH and we knew that the language component at least would mean kindergarten was VERY challenging!)

  2. I loved your answer even before you threw Garrison Keillor into the discussion, but that quote sealed the deal.
    We have homeschooled our kids, and I still get heat from one of them because I started him with K curriculum at 4, but then added an extra year of K-ish material so he wouldn’t be a year ahead of himself. What he is forgetting is the way he lamented his 5’2” height for basketball in 9th grade — which would have been 10th grade if I had kept him on the fast track. There is other growing up he had to do as well, and since he is married in his senior year of college, I’m sure his wife is also glad for that extra year of maturity.

    • I *love* prairie home companion 🙂 🙂 if I was putting together a home schooling curriculum I would want that as part of social studies! -b

  3. I didn’t get a chance to mention on the podcast episode that some states, California being one, now allows each school district to decide whether parents even have a choice to hold a child back. In our school district, parents cannot hold a young child back, or “red shirt” them, unless the district approves the decisions after testing. It’s a huge process, and an annoying one at that, which is just one of several reasons we ended up going the private school route. We’ll have to make the same hard decision next year when our very young BOY is supposed to attend kinder. Although we sent our oldest even though she’s young for her grade, I’m not inclined to send our second who is more socially immature. I think it’s such a bummer that our district won’t give parents a choice anymore. Just something to mention for other parents in the same position.

    • Oh that is SO complicated. I can see why the state might make that ruling but oh so complicated for families and underestimating the wisdom of parents 🙁

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