Is my child ready for kindergarten?


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Q: When should children start kindergarten? Our son will be 5 in August but in many ways he just doesn’t seem prepared to start school. Would we be doing him a huge disservice if we held him back until next year?

A: From a psychiatric viewpoint, kindergarten is not a necessity. Consequently, there will likely be differences of opinion between educators and psychiatrists regarding kindergarten.

Looking from the outside with an opinion that may be biased and uninformed, it seems kindergarten has assumed a greater importance over the years for certain groups of parents. Among these are the parents who are already thinking of maximum achievement/advantages in the lifetime of their children, starting at conception. For example: sperm banks of Harvard and Stanford men with their physical and mental characteristics clearly outlined for the prospective mother; fetuses who listen to Mozart in utero presumably being smarter than those who do not spawned a mini industry for a while. There are other examples. These are not bad things, and it is not wrong for parents to want to provide the best for their children.

The unease I have is the feeling (more than the knowledge) that this intensity in managing a child’s life for future advantage in materialistic and competitive arenas misses the major point of what rearing a child is all about.

From the educator’s standpoint, I presume the emphasis in preschool is preparation for academics and the social skills needed to adapt to the various school systems. I am not speaking to those issues as such, but indirectly will relate to both and mostly to social issues.

From a child psychiatrist’s point of view, a parent’s job is to provide an environment for a child that prepares for dealing with the adult world with competence and a sense of well-being. Characteristics of competency include, among others, self-esteem, dealing with adversity, taking responsibility, being able to love others and to receive love, developing morals, coming to grips with spirituality and providing for one’s self. School is a major part of nearly all children’s lives and consequently a major concern to all caring parents.

As parents we hear a lot of conflicting information as to what’s right and wrong in rearing children in all the areas listed above, including school. I, of course, am adding to this conflicting information by writing this article. I expect any discerning parent to take these opinions for what they are worth to them.

A preschooler primarily needs a place of security and predictability (called a “home”) from which to learn about the broader world he or she lives in. From this secure, protected position, he needs to be held accountable for his own actions in an age-appropriate way beginning at birth. Life needs to be enriched with reading, storytelling, sharing quality and un-quality family time and varied experiences in and out of the home. The example set by the parents’ life is the most important teaching tool. Preparation for school is all done in the home.

With this lengthy preamble, what about kindergarten? If all the above conditions are attended to, the child will be prepared for school. A year of preschool and kindergarten will make little difference. The average child reared the way I outlined will quickly catch up with the children from the enriched preschool experience. The more complicated issues arise when the preschooler is different from the average expectable child. These are where decisions have to be made regarding whether or not to attend kindergarten, how much social and academic enrichment needs to be present and whether at the completion of kindergarten a child is ready for first grade. The answers to these questions vary from child to child. Boys in general are slightly more socially immature than girls are and sometimes an extra year in kindergarten makes a huge difference. Any child who cannot navigate the expectations of a first-grade classroom for whatever reason can likely benefit from an extra kindergarten year with attention toward helping remediate their differences from in-school programs and out-of-school professionals.

There are no easy answers for when to start kindergarten and when to graduate to first grade. When the decisions are made in the child’s best interest, including social and academic parameters, major mistakes are unlikely to be made. When decisions are made for the convenience of parents or teachers, risks increase for aggravating problems. Good luck.

Gerald Taylor, M.D., is a psychiatrist with Moses Cone Behavioral Health System Psychiatric Associates. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” by e-mailing sherri.mcmillen@mosescone.com.
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