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Kindergarten—Ready or Not? Should You Redshirt Next Year?

Is a redshirt a brighter future or just a color blinding option?

Parents of preschoolers are constantly asking how old their child should be when entering kindergarten. Here's my advice: Don't wait until the last minute to make the decision. Parents of three-, four- and five-year-olds should start thinking now for the 2011-2012 school year and work on behaviors that will lead to success in kindergarten. Your decision, motive, and actions now may shape your child's future--and your own.

Here are some of the questions parents ask about redshirting which reveal an implied purpose of voluntarily delaying a child's entry into kindergarden:

  • Should I consider holding my child back because he is lacking in social skills that may prevent him from becoming a confident leader?
  • Should she be held back if her reading level is low?
  • Is he more likely to be big and strong when he joins the high school football team if we start him a year later?

No one can answer these questions because every situation is different. Beyond that, these may not even be the right questions to ask. The questions listed below are more likely to help you make the right decision for your child as you consider the overarching question facing parents of preschoolers: Redshirt or not? Let your answers to the questions that follow guide your thinking.

Out-of-Control Behavior Doesn't Bode Well for Kindergarten

A child's control over his or her own cognitive and social/emotional actions may be the most important factor in deciding if your child is ready for kindergarten. In educational jargon, control of ones own behavior is referred to as self-regulation. A researcher whom I have respected for years, Dr. Deborah J. Leong, has some of the best information for parents I've found. She points out that according to research, self-regulation may be more important in making decisions about readiness for success in kindergarten than intelligence, reading level, entry level math skills, or other considerations. So the kinds of questions parents should be asking when considering whether or not their child is ready for kindergarten may be something like the following:

• Can my child sit and pay attention?
• Can she reflect on her own thinking?
• Can he consciously remember something and make an appropriate plan of action?
• Can she take turns?
• Is he able to cooperate with others?
• Does she have enough maturity to be empathetic with peers?
• Does he have stamina for completing an activity?
• Can she remain focused on a project without adult intervention?

And guess what, kindergarten teachers agree! They rate self-regulation as the most important characteristic needed for success in kindergarten. (For more on Leong's work see Tools of the Mind.)

Find a $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher

Whether or not a child will have a positive experience in kindergarten depends to a great extent upon the kindergarten environment she is entering and it is hugely impacted by the child's kindergarten teacher. So in addition to looking at emotional indicators, I would advise parents to visit the kindergarten classroom, meet the prospective teacher, and ask: "Is this going to be a totally positive experience for my child at this time?" Whether it's a positive or a negative experience may depend upon the kindergarten teacher and the environment as much as it depends upon emotional indicators. I'm impressed with the recent research reported in "The Case for the $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher" that shows what a good kindergarten teacher is worth.

Consider this fact: Seventeen percent of children in America are six years old when they enter kindergarten. If your child is born on September 25th and the cutoff date in your district is October 1st, the question becomes is it best for her to enter kindergarten early as a five year old and be one of the youngest children in the class or whether she should enter a year later and be one of the oldest. No matter what the child's emotional makeup may be, it's going to be a different experience depending on her age.

What Reading, Writing, and Spelling Level Is Recommended for a Child Who Is Entering Kindergarten?

As the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write-From Baby to Age 7, the question I get constantly is: "Since my child is already reading, isn't she ready for kindergarten even though she's really young?"

From the literacy level perspective, it's really quite simple. A child who enters kindergarten should be able to write his or her name and tell about his or her favorite book. It's helpful if he can "memory read" some easy books that have been read out loud over and over while making the voice to print match by pointing to the words as he "reads" them from memory. Unfortunately, this year in America, 1.5 million children entered kindergarten who could not write their name or memory read a book. These children are unprepared for literacy success and enter kindergarten at risk for failure with learning to read and write. For the most part they are the same children who represent the achievement gap in middle grades and high school.

When children enter kindergarten, writing and spelling should be in Phase 1 or Phase 2 as pictured in the samples below. A few really advanced writers may be in Phase 3. Here's what their writing looks like in each phase:

The Phase 1 sample says "A flock of butterflies." This child can write her name but she doesn't know that letters represent sounds. Many children enter kindergarten at this phase and are ready for success with reading and writing.

This Phase 2 sample says "Humpty Dumpty." This child already can match some letters to sounds.

A few advanced readers and writers enter kindergarten with writing and spelling like the Phase 3 sample. Can you read the story? (Tooth Fairy. One night I was in my bed and the tooth fairy came.) This phase of writing is often seen at the beginning of first grade. Children who demonstrate this phase when entering kindergarten are ahead of the game.

Think About the Whole Child

When deciding whether or not to redshirt, think about the whole child and what will likely be the most nurturing environment for the year. Before you make the decision visit the child's kindergarten classroom and interview the teacher. Ask the perspective kindergarten teacher for his or her advice and if your child is in preschool get counsel from the preschool teacher. Ask questions such as "How ‘advanced' is the kindergarten curriculum in this school? Are there ‘play' periods in the class? Will students be expected to read by the end of kindergarten? At what level? Is the major instruction formal or informal? How much homework is required each night? How much time is spent doing hands-on activity versus worksheets and paper and pencil tasks?" Remember that in terms of brain development, children generally are not old enough for formal instruction until age six. Then decide if the kindergarten you are considering sounds like a good environment for your child. It's a tough decision. Stick with your child and give him or her continuing support. Don't beat yourself up if you make the wrong decision.

(Note: Dr. Richard Gentry is the author of The Science of Spelling and a new book for parents, Raising Confident Readers. Both available on Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)

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