The best time for a child to begin kindergarten is when that child is ready. Most children are ready at five years old – give or take one year. This doesn’t exactly offer a definitive answer to the question of the best age to begin kindergarten, so arriving at a better answer to the question of best age requires considering the following:
Until two decades or so ago, children generally began kindergarten when they were five years old or would turn five by the end of the calendar year. Parents were offered the option of letting their “Fall baby” wait a year to begin school if it appear he/she was not ready. “Fall babies” were often every bit as successful in school as their older peers, and they were the students who got to graduate high school at 17 years old. When a “Fall baby” did not do well in kindergarten parents had the option of “pulling them out” or allowing them to repeat kindergarten.
Waiting the extra year before “Fall babies” began school became more and more popular with parents. Whether this trend reflected changes in early-childhood parenting that resulted in fewer children’s being ready to start school, or whether it reflected parents’ increasing awareness of advantages to beginning school older than classmates, most likely depends on the individual parents.
Over recent decades experts saw a correlation between “Fall Babies” and difficulties functioning well in the kindergarten setting; and a heightened awareness of this issue, along with the aim to help each child begin school on solid ground, led to increasing numbers of school districts’ changing the age for kindergarten entrance to exclude all four-year-olds. This, of course, excluded all four-year-olds who are more than ready to begin kindergarten.
School officials, experts, and eventually parents, themselves, began repeating the following mantra: “Just because a child appears to be bright that doesn’t mean he is emotionally mature enough to begin school.” Minds began to close when it came to the fact that many four-year-olds are both intellectually and emotionally more than ready to function well in kindergarten. This meant that even the four-year-old who could pass kindergarten screening and demonstrate readiness in things such as following directions would not be given the opportunity to even be screened. Even more sobering is the fact that the four-year-old who is more than ready to begin kindergarten and who is held back another year (over a three-month difference in age) is more likely to be an “advanced” child, who, even if he began kindergarten at four, won’t get the academic challenges he needs. Keeping him out an extra year places him that much farther back in terms of not being challenged (and the emotionally mature child can suffer from being in with children who are substantially less mature, just as the academically advanced child can suffer from being in an unchallenging setting).
Regardless of differences of opinions on the value of laws that prohibit starting kindergarten at four years old, it is generally accepted that children have a “window” of receptiveness to learning that should not be disregarded.
Schools base policies on statistics and correlation, which, on the one hand, may be reasonable. What this means, though, is that schools no longer aim to at least try to meet the academic needs of all children. Instead, they have allowed whatever the majority of children seem to be or do set policy. Allowing for exceptions to policy could eliminate the educational neglect to which some four-year-olds over recent decades have been subjected.
Research on exceptionally bright child shows that many have a “look-before-you-leap” approach to life. This doesn’t mean they are too shy to function. It means that they are not the children who will necessarily be seen as outgoing and “mature”. This explains why many parents of bright-enough kids who are extremely active and outgoing may see their child as mature, only to discover he lacks the ability to sit still and follow directions. In other words, emotional maturity involves being socially skilled enough to follow directions, play well with other children, have self-control, and be interest in learning. When considering whether a child is ready to begin kindergarten parents and teachers need to understand that the assumption that being quiet must mean a child it immature is not always correct, and that the assumption that being “up and coming” and outgoing must mean a child is socially mature is not always correct.