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It’s a dilemma that comes up for many parents of four-year-olds this time of year. Should they start their child in kindergarten even though his birthday falls just before the cut-off date? He will be one of the youngest kids in the class. Does it matter?

It matters to moms and dads. The opportunity to give up childcare, including childcare fees, in exchange for public school represents a huge financial gain. Many four-year-olds already know how to read or do math so why not start as soon as a kid is eligible? Surely the school is prepared to work with young fives as well as with older kids.

Well, yes. Schools will tell you they’re happy to take the just-barely-five-year-olds. But statistics on grade retention tell a different story. A new study from the University of Missouri finds that the youngest kindergarteners are five times more likely to be held back for a second year of kindergarten than their older classmates.

Grade retention, even in kindergarten, is a serious matter. It’s not only embarrassing for children and their parents, it creates in children an early sense of incompetence and failure that can follow them throughout their school careers. The most consistent predictor of high school drop-out is being too-old for the grade. Children who are retained are, by definition, too old for every grade following the year in which they were held back. The hurt of repeating kindergarten or any other grade lingers, along with the stigma the child faces from teachers and school administrators.

The range of ages in kindergarten is as great as a full year. Children who were born on September 2nd and turn 6 as soon as the school year starts are in the same classroom as children born on August 31st who are just barely 5. Researcher Francis Huang points out that “older kindergarteners can have as much as 20 percent more life experience than their younger classmates.” This means that teachers must adjust instruction to accommodate this gap. Yet, according to Huang, “only a small number of teachers modify classroom instruction to deal with a diverse set of students.”

Other factors besides age affect a child’s chances of being held back in kindergarten. Huang’s analysis found that children who are noticeably shorter than their peers are more likely to be retained but that children who have strong executive processing skills, including the ability to pay attention and persist on difficult tasks, and who show eagerness to learn, were less likely to repeat a grade.

What does this mean for you, who may be pondering kindergarten entrance this year or next?

  1. As you make your decision, consider your child’s maturity, size and overall readiness in addition to her age. Remember that kindergarten these days is not so relaxed as you might remember it. Is your child old enough mentally and emotionally to meet the stresses of “real school”?
  2. If you have a choice of schools, make your choice with your child’s needs in mind. Find a school with smaller class sizes, a child-centered attitude, and a less-pressured concept of academic achievement. One of my granddaughters, an August-birthday-girl, is enrolled this year in an alternative public school with multi-age groupings, small classes and a no-homework policy for kindergarteners. Look around if your child is younger and see if you can find something similar.
  3. Consider waiting a year. Even though your four-year-old may be ahead of his preschool friends in reading and math, he’s still just four. Other kids in his kindergarten class will be just as smart and an entire year older. If you can wait a year, this might be the best thing to do.
  4. If you must start your young five in kindergarten despite counter-indications, be prepared to be extra supportive this first year. Be ready to volunteer in the classroom, to provide your child with extra help as needed, and to reduce your child’s commitments to sports and other extracurriculars. Concentrate on having a happy, successful kindergarten year.
  5. Keep in mind that being the youngest and smallest won’t be just a kindergarten thing. This will be your child’s place throughout school, including in middle school, high school and college. Being smart isn’t the only thing that matters. Fitting in matters a whole lot more!

Getting off on the right foot in education is an important accomplishment. You want your child’s kindergarten experience to be as fun and validating as it possibly can be.

Take a long hard look at your child and then make a sensible decision for your family.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.