Care and Feeding

Ready With a Capital R

My daughter is raring to go to kindergarten. Should I let her start a year early?

A small child goes off to school wearing a large backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SbytovaMN/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York

I have a question about the wisdom and latest research regarding starting kindergarten early. My almost-3-year-old daughter is in her second year of a full-day five day a week Montessori program in which she is thriving. She loves it, she loves her friends, her teachers say she is a leader in the classroom and excels in her “work.” Her January birthday means she isn’t even close to the September kindergarten cutoff in our district, so she’s looking at 2½ more years of Montessori preschool.

This is really fine, but I started thinking: What if I had her do one more year of Montessori and then do kindergarten and first grade in a private school? The district will transfer students in as second-graders in this way. This girl is going to be Ready with a capital R, socially, emotionally, and academically. I feel like if we just go with the district’s age guidelines she’ll be bored and potentially missing out on academic opportunities later on.

For context, my 6-year-old is where she should be and thriving on the district’s curriculum, but my 8-year-old (who’s young for his grade) is bored and still brings home perfect papers and tests. He qualifies for gifted programming, but the academic enrichment curriculum here is underfunded and does not really amount to much. I’m trying to get ahead of potentially seeing the same boredom and frustration crop up for my youngest. Decades ago, I also skipped a grade, and it was definitely the right call, so maybe I’m just more open to messing with the grade levels to match the child. But if you tell me that this would set her up for failure or the research says it doesn’t help, I’d love to take that into consideration. Obviously I have a while to keep thinking this through.

—Parent of Precocious Preschooler

Dear PPP,

In terms of the research, it’s mixed at best. In most cases, I think it comes down to the child. Regardless of the research, here are three reasons I would recommend against putting your daughter into school now:

1. Academics are only part of your daughter’s educational experience. Her social and emotional development are equally important, and by placing your daughter into school early, you ensure that she will be the youngest in almost every situation at school. This may not be a big deal now, but as she enters middle and high school, her friends are likely to be physically and emotionally ahead of her. I see this every day as a fifth-grade teacher. My younger students are simply more innocent—playing with toys and believing in Santa—and less physically developed and less likely to be flirting with their latest crush. This can create quite the divide in my classroom, and it often results in younger students emulating the older students in order to feel like they belong.

2. Moving your daughter into private school for the first two years, and then moving her to public school also guarantees her a transition from one school to another. While kids make these transitions all the time, they aren’t always easy socially or academically, and transitioning from private to public school can also be challenging for many kids.

3. Most importantly, we only get so many years with our children. In the blink of an eye, children grow up. Many parents would give their right arm for one more year of their child at home. Sending your daughter off to school early steals away one of those precious years, and forces her to become an adult one year earlier than necessary.

For this reason alone, I wouldn’t do it. My daughter is in fourth grade, moving onto middle school next year. I am keenly aware that I have eight more years with her before we send her off to college and her future life as an adult.

Eight years. It feels so short. What I wouldn’t give to hit the pause button and stop the relentless loss of childhood. Don’t force your daughter to grow up too fast.
Childhood is fleeting and precious. Allow it to last as long as possible.

—Mr. Dicks

Our daughter is in kindergarten. While she’s doing well by all academic markers, and her teacher confirms that she’s very well-behaved in class, she’s completely miserable. Per her reports, her teacher yells a lot at the other kids, and at the whole class. She’s gone from being very confident and happy to being fearful and extremely negative about her own abilities. We’ve attempted to engage with the teacher, focusing on “she feels that …” instead of “you yell,” but the result was a mess—the teacher decided to talk to my daughter (fine) and then engage in a big debate with her over whether the teacher yells. This culminated in a full-class meeting, in which the other children in class were asked to confirm that the teacher doesn’t yell and our daughter is wrong. Our daughter was mortified and is now “too sick” every morning to go to school, and has generally turned into a nightmare at home. I’m at a loss. We’ve had great teachers at this school for years with our older child, and we’ve never had to deal with something like this. What should we do?

—Spiraling Situation

Hey there Spiraling,

Wow. Yelling is probably the fastest way to cause anxiety in a child, so it’s no wonder your daughter has been feeling “sick.” Based on your account, you’ve done all the right things to try to address this issue in a thoughtful, professional way. That’s more than we can say for the teacher! When I read about her full-class meeting, my stomach turned! What a tough scenario for your daughter to endure.

There are a few things you can do. If your school has a counselor, I’d request a meeting with your daughter, so that the counselor can help her work through some of her anxiety. It’s important this happens quickly, since her behavior at home is escalating. You want to rebuild her love for learning before this self-doubt and negativity become fully ingrained in her. If your school doesn’t have a counselor, I’d ask the principal or a district official to suggest outside resources. Oftentimes these services can be very affordable or even free.

Also, this “class meeting” seems more like an attempt to publicly shame your daughter. This is incredibly inappropriate. It has created an incredibly hostile learning environment for her. However, to avoid worsening the situation, I’d recommend revisiting the conversation with the teacher only if this type of treatment continues. And if that doesn’t work, you always have the option of going directly to the principal.

In primary education, trust between teacher and student is everything. Rebuilding your daughter’s love for school and her trust in her teacher won’t be easy, but with enough positive supports in place, I’m confident she’ll be back to her normal self in no time!

—Mr. Hersey

My fiancée’s brother and family emigrated from Vietnam to the United States about three years ago. His two kids (daughter is 15 and son is 17) are in regular high school classes but still very much learning English, and neither is receiving language support. While they are both doing OK in school grade-wise, I know they are struggling with the language issue. For example, my niece-to-be told me that she recently had no idea what she was supposed to do on a major, semester-long history project because she had difficulty understanding the instructions.

My fiancée and I have some idea of how to help (checking in periodically, reviewing assignments, etc.), but we want to do more. The challenge is that my fiancée is not in a position to do this—she is bipolar and in the midst of a prolonged depressive episode that previously required hospitalization. I don’t mind taking the lead, but I feel a little uncertain about my role, what is appropriate, and when I am overstepping my bounds. For example, over Thanksgiving, my future niece’s mom wanted her to fill in at the nail salon where her mom works, but I thought she should spend the time catching up on school assignments. (I didn’t say anything.) I also think she needs an adult figure to reach out to the teachers to make sure that she is getting the in-school support she needs, but I am very conscious of the fact that I am not technically family.

Any advice on how I can advocate for them given these relationship dynamics would be appreciated!

—Lost in translation

Dear Lost,

All English language learners are entitled to programs or services that ensure they can meaningfully participate in school—it’s their civil right. If these kiddos moved to the U.S. three years ago, there’s an excellent chance they need services, but there are two reasons they might not be in English as a second language classes. They may have “tested out” of ESL by performing well on a proficiency exam (but they still qualify for—and likely need—continued support). Or, their parents may have “opted out” of the program, which they can legally do. However, the school is required to monitor students who have exited or opted out of services to ensure they are thriving.

You’re right that your position as the aunt’s fiancée makes things complicated.
Legally, parents advocate for and make decisions about their children’s education. Your ability to help will depend on your relationship with this family. Determining how they spend their Thanksgiving break is more of a parenting issue than an education issue. In my experience, most parents are not looking for outsider advice when it comes to parenting.

However, if the family comes to value your knowledge and experience with the American school system, they may appreciate your perspective. So I would start there. First, you can certainly offer yourself as a tutor to the teens—they are old enough to decide for themselves whether they would appreciate the help. Let your future niece and nephew know you’re eager to help them study, understand instructions, or proofread essays.

As you get to know their situation, you may find that the school is not meeting its obligations. Once you have more concrete information, you can talk to the parents to ensure they know their children’s rights and help them navigate the bureaucracy.

As far as reaching out to the teachers yourself, I have only communicated directly with a tutor when parents have explicitly asked me to do so, as there are legal privacy issues at play. But another way you can help these teens is to brainstorm how to advocate for themselves in school (I recommend role-playing!). If their grades are pretty good, teachers may not realize they are struggling. And in some cultures, students are loath to “challenge” a teacher, and therefore may be reluctant to speak up when in need of assistance.

There are also a wealth of resources online! Investigate resources specific to your state.

Your desire to help is laudable! It takes a village.

—Ms. Holbrook

As a weird, introverted kid, I clashed a lot with my school administration. I was diagnosed with a developmental disorder (though I don’t really think I have it) when I was 15. My parents and I talked to the principal, the school psychologist, and some other administrators to figure out how my IEP would work. Shortly after, my principal used that to prevent me from doing my favorite extracurricular activity, essentially punishing me for something out of my control. I quit a few months later. Even back then I thought that could be illegal under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but suing wasn’t worth the time and expense.

Once I got to college, I began having some mental health issues. My school eventually forced me to take a leave of absence. I recently found out that the school was pretty unethical in its treatment of other mentally ill students, to the point where a nonprofit is suing on their behalf. I felt that the school had definitely not tried to see my perspective during the whole incident, to say the least. I spoke to a lawyer at the nonprofit about my experience.

My question is: How do I work through my past traumatic experiences to develop a healthy relationship with my school? I distrusted most of my teachers in high school because of my experience with the principal. I tried to interact with my teachers as little as possible because I was always worried I would get in trouble. I definitely don’t want this to follow me around in college. What do I do?

—Trying to Move On

Dear Move On,

You’ve been through a lot, and I really admire your perseverance in continuing to pursue your degree despite the challenges you’ve faced. It sounds like you really value education, as I obviously do, too. I also appreciate and support your instinct to process your past experiences and move forward with confidence. As for the question of how to do that, here’s the thing: Part of my responsibility as a teacher is to recognize which issues I have the skill and knowledge to address and resolve. Another part of my responsibility is to recognize issues that I don’t have the skill and knowledge to address and resolve. When the latter occurs, it is my job to try to identify the person or support system that can meet my student’s need, and to then connect my student to that support.

When I read your letter, I reached out to a few friends with expertise in mental health and higher education, and we are all in agreement: My role here is to encourage you to connect with a counselor you trust. It sounds like you identify your past experiences as unresolved trauma; a mental health professional can offer you the nuanced guidance and sustained support that will be most helpful to working through that. I think that universities usually offer counseling services via the student health center, so I would investigate that as a starting point. If that’s not an option, then I might try reaching back out to your contact at the nonprofit that intervened at your school. My hunch is that they will have a network of connections at various support services, and they may be able to point you in the right direction.

Good luck. This sounds tough, and you deserve to feel better.

—Ms. Bauer