I was a June baby. In fact, I graduated from high school a couple days before my eighteenth birthday. When I started kindergarten over 30 years ago, the state of Michigan required new kindergarteners to be five years old before December, six months after my fifth birthday. While my kindergarten teacher warned my mom that she wasn’t sure she was ready, for my mom it was a no brainer; I needed to go to school because I needed to be around other kids and she wasn’t going to put it off. My kindergarten teacher’s fears were unfounded and I was fine. As soon as I was in the classroom I took off and my love of learning never died. Apparently, all I needed was some structure and a little push. Of course, by the time I graduated from high school, I was one of the youngest in my graduating class, but the fact remains that I was ready to start school when I did and there was no reason for my parents to look back and re-evaluate their decision.
When we had our own June baby nearly six years ago, the plan was always that he would follow the same academic schedule as his older sister. Our kids are two years and two months apart and the best of friends. We didn’t want to do anything that would mess with that closeness and we had mentally prepared ourselves for having kids that were two years apart in everything, including school. Our daughter entered pre-K with a natural aptitude for sitting mostly still, filling out worksheets, and gladly learning how to read and write all of her letters. The summer before she entered kindergarten she regularly sat down with paper and a pencil, asking me to spell out word after word as she carefully scrawled them out in her imperfect handwriting. She took to reading almost immediately and has never struggled with learning new words. In short, there was never any doubt that she was ready for school. In fact, we were probably less prepared for what she would have to do as a kindergartener than she was.
As children usually are, our son, equally as inquisitive and intelligent as his older sister, proved to be the complete opposite when it came to school preparedness. As a educator, I spent the first five years of his life watching out for the signs, a task that was still difficult for me because my expertise is in children over the age of fourteen. I read articles on expectations on American pre-schoolers, I read about early literacy, I read about the differences in school for boys and girls, I paid attention to trends and talked to friends and colleagues who were also considering what decisions they were going to make about their summer birthday children. And I watched our son. I watched as he gained favor with his teachers, as he interacted with his classmates, and as he refused to learn how to color in the lines and to tell us his letters. Our son loves books and he loves being read to, but when we asked him to identify letters and sounds he would look at us, shrug, and say “I don’t know.” When I attended his pre-K Christmas party during his first round of pre-K, it became abundantly clear to me that he was younger and less mature than his classmates. While he got along great with his classmates and had many friends, I could see the differences between our son and many of the boys who were six or more months older than him.
We conferenced with his pre-K teacher multiple times during the course of the year. Already at his first conference, his teacher was trying to prepare us for the possibility that he might need one more year before kindergarten. He was progressing, but his interest in “academics” was spotty. When they started working on stations, he matched or surpassed many of his older classmates in problem solving skills. But then when we compared his letter and number knowledge with the same classmates, he was behind. We had to make a decision between having our son continue to kindergarten with the risk of him struggling to keep up or giving him one more year to mature so that he could be a “rock star” once he got to kindergarten. Complicating that decision was the desire to keep him with his friends. While he is still young and friendships continue to evolve at his age, we had already uprooted him one year before when we made the move from Indiana to Texas. We had forced him to leave friends he had spent the last three years of his life getting to know through both daycare and preschool. Now we were once again contemplating keeping him back from a new group of friends. That would mean two years in a row of social adjustments with a child who treasures his close friendships and does not do well with change.
Parenting is hard. It just is. We make decisions about and for our children all the time, decisions that we know will have lasting consequences. In the end, after multiple conversations with his teacher, we finally came to a difficult conclusion based on the following factors:
- Our son still needed nap time. Now he complains because “nap time is a waste of time because (he) could be spending that time playing,” but when the school year started, he was still a little boy who turned into a little monster when he was tired. Pair constant activity with increased cognitive expectations and less scheduled rest during the day, and there was potential for disaster. Now, on most days that he is at home, he is still fairly functional when he hasn’t had an extra nap, meaning next year he will be more cooperative at school and at home because he shouldn’t be too sleepy. At least, that’s what we’re hoping for.
- Our son wasn’t ready for formalized literacy. He loves the English language; he sometimes talks like he is two to three years older than he really is, but last summer he still had minimal interest in learning how to decode the English language. During the two and a half months off I attempted to have him complete Star Wars activity books, thinking that the theme would entice him to do the activities, but even those appeared to be a chore for him. That doesn’t mean that our son struggles with understanding complex texts. Our son, who a year ago showed no interest in letters, absorbed the entire Harry Potter series when we started listening to the books on our family vacation to Michigan. There were even times that he comprehended things before his big sister (who will probably finish reading the whole series herself before her eighth birthday in less than two months) did, including the death of Sirius Black. But when it comes to young literacy, the US appears to be pushing kids to read far earlier than other countries, yet our children are not necessarily better readers. As an English teacher one of my biggest fears is that my children will lose their love for the written word. I’m hopeful that now my son will be ready and eager to read instead of frustrated at his lack of progress.
- He’s had extra time to play, an important part of child development that is disappearing from schools around the country. With the increased pressures for testing and the many additional expectations related to standardized testing practices, schools feel like they need to spend more time on academics and create less time for play. This counterproductive practice is starting all the way down in pre-K programs nationwide. While we are lucky enough to send our children to a private school that makes creative play a priority, this is not the case for most of our country’s children. Putting kindergarten off for one more year gives some of those children who really need it more time for developmental play before they are required to sit still.
- We haven’t had to deal with homework. Yes, homework. For those who haven’t been near a kindergarten classroom in the last 20+ years, it has become common practice to have kindergarten students do homework every week. The amount of homework and the timeline for the homework varies from state to state and even from school to school, but the general consensus nationwide is that five and six year old children need to be doing homework. I personally have mixed feelings about this because I can see both sides of the argument, but since I can’t change this fact of early childhood education I am just glad that I didn’t have to fight with a little boy who was not ready to sit still and complete worksheets or read me an assigned book after coming home from school. But now our son has started to demonstrate a readiness to sit still for longer periods of time, working on coloring, drawing, and other activities. Pair that with an actual interest in sharing with us what he has learned during the day (a dinnertime ritual), and I’m hopeful that homework time next year will be more him doing the work and less me standing over his shoulder making sure that it gets done.
While the above have been the immediate positives of keeping our son out of kindergarten for an extra year, there is plenty to be said for the long term effects of “redshirting” preschool children as well. According to a recent study, middle class children who are held back for an extra year of preschool before being sent to kindergarten report being much happier with their lives once they reach their middle school years. It is important to note that this is only the case for middle class children who have financial access to an extra year of academic enrichment. Lower class children will typically spend that extra year either at home with a caregiver or in a daycare situation that is not attached to a preschool program. As a result, they are not getting an extra year of planned academics (no extra writing, reading, or numbers practice) and they are not around teachers who can notice early developmental red flags, such as speech or cognitive issues. While this brings up other issues related to early childhood education, it appears that for those children in a consistent educational situation (like our son), putting off kindergarten for another year can have a life long positive effect.
Last year our son’s pre-K teacher repeatedly told us that we knew our son and it had to be our decision. While we asked for a lot of feedback and extra evaluation, all of the teachers involved refused to tell us what we should do. Despite our son’s tears and insistence that he stay with his friends (and my husband’s many reservations), we gave him that extra year and it continues to make a huge difference. And while our son started the school year saying that he was going to just skip kindergarten and move right on to first grade, I believe that he will be incredibly successful (and happy) with his current classmates once they are all in kindergarten next year.
And that is what matters most.