"Young Fives" may be old enough for kindergarten, but are they developmentally ready?

It was a classic case: a five-year-old boy with a summer birthday. Born just eight weeks before his state’s kindergarten cutoff date, his academic skills and physical abilities were on par with those of his peers. But was he socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten?

As a teacher — and, I confess, as that little boy’s mom — I understand both sides of the issue. Across the United States, many parents of “young fives” have opted to delay their child’s kindergarten start, even if the child is age eligible. To address the needs of these children, some districts are offering transitional kindergarten (TK) classes, which promote positive socialization, hands-on learning, and emergent literacy. But there’s also an ample amount of play time. After a year of TK, children either go on to a year of regular kindergarten or on to first grade, depending on their readiness.

While the popularity of TK waned in the 1990s, educators are again seeing an increase in such classes — a rise likely due to both increased academic pressures in kindergarten and an effort to meet children’s developmental needs.

Cutoff Dates

Across the United States, September 1 is the most common date by which children need to turn five in order to start kindergarten. However, this can vary significantly by state; in Indiana the cutoff is July 1, but in California it’s December 2.

This means that some children may start kindergarten before their fifth birthday. The challenges these kids face may not be just with their reading readiness and math skills. As any kindergarten teacher can tell you, kids may struggle with fine or gross motor movement, adequate social skills, or making it through a full day of school.

For these reasons, about 10 percent of U.S. parents delay their child’s kindergarten start by a year, and boys are delayed nearly twice as much.

The Gift of Time

Elizabeth Lunday agonized about whether to enroll her son in a transitional kindergarten near their home in Fort Worth, Texas. “He had some language delays when he was younger,” she says. “As a result, he really withdrew socially from other children.” While that had been corrected through speech therapy, Lunday was concerned that her son’s introverted nature would make kindergarten difficult for him. In the end, she opted to enroll him in a TK program at University Christian Church Weekday School. “In talking to other parents,” she says, “I heard several say ‘I wish I had held my child back,’ but no one ever said ‘I wish I hadn’t done it.’”

From a teacher’s perspective, Amy Weisberg couldn’t agree more. Two years ago, she instituted the first developmental kindergarten program at her school, Topanga Elementary, in California. As a teacher in the state with the second latest cutoff date for kindergarten, she asserts that “those youngest kids just need a place to go.”

Referring to research from the Gesell Institute of Human Development, Weisberg says that it is crucial to recognize the difference between a child’s chronological age and his or her developmental stage. Weisberg also adds, “This can be especially true for boys, who may lag up to six months behind girls at that point.”

In Wisconsin’s McFarland School District, parents can choose between regular kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, and Just Five classes. Now in its seventh year of operation, Just Five is a half-day class for children who aren’t quite ready for a full-day kindergarten class, says teacher Sara Everson.

Both Everson and Weisberg estimate that about half of their students go on to first grade the following year, while the rest opt for another year of kindergarten. By then, many of the children are developmentally ready to tackle the increased academic demands placed on them, and they’ve got the social skills and confidence to be successful.

What the Research Shows

“Many parents and teachers believe that holding kids back will result in higher achievement scores, but any advantage typically disappears by third grade,” says Deborah Stipek, dean and professor of education at Stanford University. “Moreover, there’s variability in children’s skills no matter what the age.”

Stipek authored a 2002 report entitled “At What Age Should Children Enter Kindergarten? A Question for Policy Makers and Parents,” published by the Society for Research in Child Development. In analyzing the research that has been done on the topic, it’s evident that delayed school entry can have a negative impact on low-income and minority children, for whom in-school experiences are critical in closing the achievement gap.

As teachers, we might ask: Is it about making the child ready for school, or about making the school ready for the child?“ In a lot of ways, transitional kindergarten has a more developmental approach that emphasizes the social and emotional needs of children,” says Beth Graue, the author of Ready for What? and a professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin.

A Balancing Act

Remember that little boy I mentioned earlier? Here’s what happened: After poring over the research and talking with his preschool teachers, I made the decision to send him to school when he was age eligible. Cole was one of the youngest in his class; physically, he was tall and coordinated, but socially, it was a different story. I won’t lie — it was a challenge for both me and his teacher. But you know what? This month, he’s starting third grade and he’s absolutely thriving.

Did I make the right choice? I don’t know — but I made the best decision I could have at the time. As parents and teachers, that’s the best we can do.