Care and Feeding

I’m Not Sure My Son Is Ready for Kindergarten

Should I hold him back?

A young boy carries a big, heavy backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by aldegonde/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 across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Preschool and kindergarten registration are coming up and I am not sure what to do with my son. My son is 4, and he will turn 5 on Aug. 17. The cutoff for school is Sept. 1, and we are debating whether he should go to kindergarten or wait. Life would be easier if we sent him next year, but I know of a nearby preschool that we could send him to if we wanted to give him another year.

Here are the reasons I think he should go: He will have completed two years of morning preschool. He loves school—mostly the social aspects of it. He is well-behaved in school and listens fairly well. He has an older sister in first grade now, he knows about the public school he’ll attend, and he is excited for kindergarten. He is tall-ish and physically coordinated, is mostly determined when facing challenges, and can play independently without trouble.

The concerns I have are: He’s generally a quiet kid and a thinker; he’ll frequently seem as if he isn’t listening or paying attention even when he is, so in a class of eager students, he could fall to the back. Also, he still gets mixed up on recognizing some letters and writes some letters backward. He also can count to at least 40, but usually doesn’t want to when asked … or at least when asked by me. Also, his older sister finds school to be pretty easy, so I worry about him comparing his abilities with hers. Kindergarten is only a half day here, so while the day is shorter, our kindergarten program does not offer students very much downtime or playtime.

I know that he has another eight or so months left before kindergarten, so he’ll be different by fall. I have read about delaying kindergarten and have mostly come away with conflicting information: I know there are studies that show benefits to sending kids, and others that show benefits to waiting. It seems that a lot of parents, especially with boys, hold them back. If my son is in classes with students at least one year older than him, I don’t know how he’ll feel about his abilities, and how well he’ll be able to keep up. Conversely, I don’t want to hold him if he is ready, because I don’t want to set him up to be bored in school or to feel discouraged if he doesn’t get to go to kindergarten.

I have emailed the school psychologist at his future school, and she replied with a document that lists the skills he’ll need to have mastered leaving kindergarten. I did not find this helpful. What are your thoughts? Are summer birthday students too wiggly and young to get the most from kindergarten? Will aspiring to keep up with older students give him motivation? I might be asking you to predict the future, but that is what I feel I am trying to do, too.

—Should He Go?

Dear Should He Go,

As a general rule, I am against the practice of holding a kid back from starting kindergarten. I try not to speak in absolutes: There are obviously specific cases where I would recommend holding a kid back. But your reasons not to send him are all based on fears and anxieties that will probably not change in a year. He still has the potential to fly under the radar even with another year to mature. And for the record, I do not think being a quiet kid equates with being ignored by teachers. His pre-academic skills seem fine, and it’s pretty typical for children to not want to perform rote skills like counting for their parents because they’re flexing their autonomy.

I’d like to add two more points to your “reasons to send him” list. First, the September cutoff is already a concession to the idea that kids with those borderline birthdays may not be ready. When I was a kid, and likely when you were a kid, the cutoff was December. If a child was going to turn 5 in 2020, the logic used to go, then they should start kindergarten in 2020. But those October–December babies seemed “too young,” or at least their parents felt that way, and so many school districts changed the cutoff to September. This helped with those October–December babies, but now the August–September babies were dealing with the same issue. No matter where we set it, there will always be kids on the cusp of the cutoff. That’s just how calendars work. You can’t let anxiety about that hold you back.

Second, I think it’s better to have a kid go and strive toward the maturity of his peers than to have him start when he’s already more mature than his peers. To me, given the choice between “give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, get him extra support” vs. “hold him back to prevent him from struggling” isn’t even really a question. (And ultimate worst-case scenario: You send him, it’s absolutely awful and he cannot handle it, and then you consider holding him back. But I think he will probably be fine.)

You obviously know your kid better than I do, so I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that this is the right choice. But I’m pretty sure it’s the right choice. If you’re still looking for a way to “check,” I have two options for you. One, here is a link from Understood.org (a website for parents with children with special needs that many of my parents like) of kindergarten readiness skills. With lists like this, I don’t see it as all or nothing. Sometimes, children start kindergarten with only some of these skills. But if he has most of these skills, he’s probably fine. Two, talk to his current teachers. They’ve seen more preschoolers go to kindergarten than you have, and they probably have more experience delaying kindergarten than you or even I do. Do they think he’s ready? If they don’t, I’d hope they would have told you by now, but it can’t hurt to ask. In either case, unless you come across a really strong reason to delay, my gut tells me that it’s better to send him than to force him to wait, especially given that he likes school.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

My sixth grade son has ADHD and an anxiety disorder, which have often combined to make him that “problem child” in the classroom. Over the years, we’ve had some teachers who were incredible and really worked with him and helped him be the best student he could be. Unfortunately, he’s also had a few teachers who saw him as nothing but a behavior problem and were not open to working with us or him. He does act out sometimes, so I totally get that it’s difficult to work with him while also managing a classroom of other kids with their own personalities and issues! His sometimes-eccentric behavior also means that he comes in for a fair share of teasing and ostracism from other kids. He’s a good student, but he has had some pretty negative experiences with school and doesn’t really want to be there.

The start of the school year was a struggle in a few areas, but overall things were going pretty well. Then in November he was diagnosed with epilepsy. Now he has one more thing that is setting him apart from other kids as “different,” as his teachers watch him for signs of seizures. He’s taking new medicines with expected side effects like nausea, dizziness, and weakness in the legs. Unfortunately, these just take time to work through as his doctors fine-tune his dosages.

Unfortunately, this medication has led to him missing a great deal of school. His teachers have been great about accommodating him, but his peers have made it difficult for him, teasing him about how often he has been sick or gone to the nurse. All of this has led him to feel so negatively about school that he doesn’t want to be there at all. Every morning is met with discussion about every possible queasy feeling here or leg pain there, and he attempts to convince us that he can’t go to school. When he is home, he generally acts fine and isn’t obviously bothered by the side effects, so I really think a lot of it is psychosomatic.

I don’t know what to do. Do we keep pushing him to keep at it with school even when he’s feeling sick (it may be psychosomatic, but it’s still miserable) and being bullied by the other kids? Or do we pull him out midyear and home-school him instead? I do have a master’s degree in education, so I feel like I could supervise the workload and assist when he has questions. And my husband and I both work from home so we would be able to keep an eye on him to be sure he’s doing schoolwork and not just taking this as a vacation from school. But I don’t know if that would be the best thing for him. Is it better to remove him from the environment that he finds so stressful at the expense of social interaction? I want him to be happy, and I also want to be sure we’re doing the right thing for his education and his social development and coping skills. (For what it’s worth, the school is in the process of hiring a new school counselor, so that resource is not available to him.)

We would really appreciate your take to help us figure out what to do next.

—Adrift

Dear Adrift,

Poor kid! So many issues, plus teasing—I understand why he’d be loath to go to school.

Leaving him in school to be bullied is obviously not appropriate. And while you say you have a master’s in education and think you can manage home-schooling your son, you already have a job. Is it full time? Home-schooling is equivalent to full-time work, so unless you or your husband can scale back or take a leave of absence, home-schooling doesn’t seem like a tenable solution. Fortunately, these two solutions present a false dichotomy.

One of the solutions you don’t mention—indeed, the most prosocial one—is that the other kids stop treating your son this way. They show a dearth of empathy, somewhat typical of their age, but still. They need to be taught—by you, your son, a teacher, and/or an expert on your son’s conditions—what it’s like to live with ADHD, anxiety, and epilepsy, or love someone who has these conditions. There are tons of resources online (here’s one) about how to teach empathy, but learning it requires explanation, modeling, and practice.

If I were you, I’d contact the teacher(s) and administration, relay the issue, and ask about character education. It’s possible they have a character ed curriculum already in place and they could weave in a unit about respecting people with physical, health, or neurological differences. If not, work with the teachers and administration on figuring out how to incorporate it into the school day.

Mr. Rogers said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” If your son’s peers and teachers hear his story, I guarantee their experience of him will change, and so will his experience of them.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

My 7-year-old son currently attends a very good, private Christian school. His father and I are divorced and could not afford this education on our own, but we are able to make it work because my ex’s parents set aside an education fund for him, and his grandmother was a teacher at this school for 30 years, so we get a discount. His grandparents are happy because he’s getting a Christian education, and I’m happy because he is going to a good private school. I feel particularly grateful because the public schools in the area are not great, and he is getting a much better education at this Christian school than he would be getting at our local school.

The problem lies in the deeply religious Christian education. Neither my husband nor I is religious. How do I let my child know that his parents don’t necessarily believe in all the things that his school is teaching him?

I like the values that they are teaching him: do unto others, give back when you can, etc. But how and when do I let him know that his father and I do not necessarily believe in Jesus, or the Bible, but we believe in these values and in helping others when you can?

I am not willing to take him out of this school. He loves it, the staff are wonderful, and he is getting the attention he needs, not to mention again the fact that he would get none of this at our local public school.

—Can I Separate Church From State?

Dear CISCFS,

This is a tricky situation to navigate, but I would talk to your son now. As a second grade teacher, I work with children who are your son’s age daily, and you’d be surprised at what kids of this age are capable of understanding.

I get why you may be nervous because this is a big conversation. So, ease into it. First, I’d have a talk with his father so that you both are on the same page with messaging. I’d recommend sitting down with your son, maybe together, and explaining what you believe and what you don’t. I think it will be key to explain that just because you and his father don’t believe in Jesus, that doesn’t make it bad or silly for him or others to believe in him. I think it would go a long way to present him with the choice and let him make his own decision in what he believes, giving him the space to change his mind at any time.

I’d also have a conversation with his teacher, so that his teacher knows these conversations are happening at home—there may be ways his teacher can support your son in the classroom. I’d be surprised if his teacher hasn’t encountered a similar situation before. His teacher may also be able to provide some helpful context on how to frame the conversation for your son. Being thoughtful and open about how you approach this conversation, and the many that will follow, will carry you through. I think your son will appreciate your honesty as he grows and begins to develop his own religious identity.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

Are there any laws that say students and teachers cannot be scheduled for two classes at the same time?

My daughter attends a public junior high school in Ohio. Our area is growing, and the schools are bursting at the seams. One of their solutions to the overcrowding problem at the junior high is to have students attend certain classes in the high school next door. (These are junior high kids taking advanced classes for high school credit.) My daughter will likely be expected to go there for geometry and possibly Spanish 2 next year as an eighth grader. The problem with this is that the high school and junior high bells ring at different times, which means classes overlap, resulting in students being forced to miss part of at least one class every day.

It also creates a problem for the handful of teachers who work in both buildings. For example, the band director has a 17-minute overlap when he’s scheduled for both a junior high and high school class. (I’m told the assistant principal sits with the junior high students until the teacher gets there.)

The root of this problem is that the two schools don’t want to work together and line up their bells. They are in the process of building a new junior high, and they are pointing to that as the solution. However, that building won’t be open until the fall of 2021, so that’s another year and a half of dealing with this, as well as the remainder of my daughter’s time in junior high. I’m planning to talk to the principal and the superintendent if necessary, and I would like to be aware of any laws that might come into play here.

—Two Places at Once

Dear Two Places,

While this is a ridiculous nonsolution to the schools’ scheduling problems, and you’re absolutely right to complain, no, I don’t think there are any laws that prohibit this. Federal education law is very broad, and most policy is made at the state level; I reviewed the Ohio Department of Education’s website, and while I’m not a legal scholar, I don’t think anything I found there would usefully address your scheduling woes.

One document I’d suggest you look at is your teacher association’s bargaining agreement with the district. The conditions it outlines only pertain to the members of the teaching union, so it offers you no leverage in the discussions you plan to have; I don’t recommend you bring it up, actually, lest you be perceived as attempting to co-opt a contract that doesn’t apply to you. But I think it might bring you some clarity and help you feel better informed on the details of your district’s agreed-upon scheduling policies for teachers. (That said, you probably won’t find an explicit provision there, because I cannot imagine the union would allow a contractual violation to go uncontested for two years.) Similarly, you can check out your district’s specific education policies, probably found on their website.

My hunch is that you’re in a no man’s land where this dumb arrangement isn’t expressly prohibited, so it’s hard to protest it on the basis of rules and regulations. I would also guess that the overlapping classes affect a relatively small number of students and teachers, that the teachers most affected are those specials or electives instructors whose subjects are often seen as nonessential, and that since the students involved are accelerated, there’s more perceived leeway in how much class time they can afford to miss. In a crowded, growing district with many competing needs to accommodate, I wonder if this solution seemed the least disruptive to the whole, even if it meant creating a decidedly frustrating experience for a smaller subset of the community.

Talk to the principal, talk to the superintendent, but also, don’t hesitate to address the board of education, whose role is partially to provide oversight and accountability in district affairs. In lieu of policies you can point to, here are the points I’d raise.

One, this is not safe, and has the potential to be a liability nightmare. They’ve designed a system in which it’s very difficult to accurately account for both students and teachers for a period of time every day. What if there’s a lockdown? How will they uphold the proper procedures?

Two, the schools are not holding themselves to the same standard they’d likely hold your daughter to if she were missing this much instructional time of her own volition. I’m not sure if she’s missing the same 17-minute chunk of time as the band director or if the overlap isn’t as dramatic for students, but even if it’s five minutes, well, so what? If she were missing five minutes of instructional time every single day until fall 2021 to wander the halls and tend to her Snapchat streaks, would the school be similarly permissive? I think not. Your daughter and her classmates are owed their full instructional time, just as their full attendance is expected of them.

I hope you find a swift resolution. Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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