Q: Our son turns 5 in August. My sister suggests we hold him back a year from kindergarten. He's shy and not as academic as her 5-year-old daughter, who reads picture books. Will the school give him a readiness test? What factors determine if we should hold him back?
A: Some parents hold back a child to give "the gift of time" to catch up to today's higher levels of kindergarten readiness. A few do it to give a child a leg up for later participation in sports. But don't do it because your sister tells you to.
There is no clear data on the academic, social and emotional benefits of holding a child back. After reviewing studies, Deborah Stipek of Stanford University concluded that whatever gains might exist in the early elementary years disappear by the end of upper elementary school. There is data from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that an average kindergartner actually benefits from exposure to more mature peers.
Consider the following factors, says Robin Obey, an experienced K-1 teacher in North Bellmore, New York:
-- Each child develops cognitively, socially, physically and emotionally at a different pace.
"Kindergarten teachers expect a wide range of ability and behaviors in each class and are prepared to accommodate each learner," Obey says.
-- Kindergartners aren't expected to be able to read when they enter school. A few may be emerging readers, but most are not.
"Don't compare him with his cousin," says Obey. "She's the exception, not the norm."
-- If your son is in preschool, consult his teachers.
"Their observations can be invaluable in your decision," Obey advises.
-- A kindergarten screening is essential.
"Each school has one and he'll be assessed for speech or cognitive delays," says Obey. "The results can offer guidance."
-- Accelerate your son's readiness.
"Parents don't realize how much they can do with simple activities, says Obey. "The most important? Read to him every day. Include some of the wonderful books about starting kindergarten."
Play word games such as, "I say cat. You say rat." Play I Spy and Categories: "Let's think of things that are red ..." Encourage storytelling: "Tell me what happened when we went to the zoo." Take photos and have your son dictate captions. Have him draw a story; dictate what's happening while you write the words.
Give your son simple tasks, such as sorting laundry or setting the table, to build one-to-one correspondence, number sense and independence. Provide multistep directions to develop listening skills and ability to focus.
Boost his fine motor skills: Sculpt with Play-Doh; tear up junk mail; use scissors; draw.
Provide opportunities to socialize in small and large group settings.
"His shyness can be a personality trait or just how he is right now," Obey notes. "One year, the youngest child in my class barely spoke. She's now the president of her high school class."
Unless the screening tests reveal a problem, Obey advises you to focus your energies on getting your son excited about going to kindergarten this fall.
"Reinforce simple readiness skills every day," she says. "Your school can provide a list of those skills, or find them online at state education department websites."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)