Care and Feeding

Should I Delay Sending My Son to Kindergarten?

Young boy with a backpack getting ready for school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock/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.

We’re trying to decide whether to start our child in kindergarten at age 5 or 6. He turns 5 late next summer, shortly before the kindergarten age cutoff. Notably, he is physically quite slight for his age. He’s currently 4 and a half years old, knows the alphabet, spells, and writes some simple words, counts to 100, and grasps simple addition and subtraction. He has a huge vocabulary and likes to be read to for hours. He has good fine motor control and makes detailed drawings, usually with little guidance. He was in preschool as a 3-year-old, until COVID shut things down, and he’s been home with me since. We don’t push him or do any formal lessons. He’s had very little social interaction with other children since March 2020.

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Even before COVID hit, I was on the fence about starting him in kindergarten as a barely 5-year-old, mostly because of his small size and also to give him one more year of play. He is also biracial and has some health issues, which I worry could make him a target for bullying, especially if much smaller physically than his peer group. On the flip side, I wonder whether starting kindergarten at age 6 would result in a bored kid and ensuing problems, since academically he already seems ready for it.

COVID complicates everything. Compared to prior years, it’s possible that next year’s kindergarten class could be larger and skewed older (and hence even bigger kids), depending on how much of this year’s diminished enrollment was due to 5-year-olds being held back.

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I’ve met a few retired kindergarten teachers who’ve all unequivocally advised to hold him back, but they’re from an older generation. People I’ve spoken with in our school district don’t seem to have a strong opinion. Some of the traditional reasons to redshirt, like to confer a sports or academic advantage, have zero influence for us. We just want to keep our small kid safe. If we wait, we’d pursue various social activities for him in the meantime, depending on the COVID situation at the time. What opinions do you think?

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—Late Start?

Dear Late Start,

Generally, I err on the side of “don’t redshirt your child.” The benefits of redshirting are overstated by its proponents, and a child who is a year ahead of his peers and bored may enjoy school less. That being said, your case is one of the few where I see some benefit to holding him back. COVID has created this black hole—we don’t yet know how it will impact the next few years of school (or beyond). Given that your son is close to the cutoff date, holding him back may not have the negative impact that I’d normally worry about.

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I can understand why the people in the district seem ambivalent—it’s hard to say for certain one way or another, given that most districts don’t know what next year will look like. However, if you can safely visit the kindergarten classroom, I think that might help. I’m a proponent of trusting your gut, and if you walk into a classroom and immediately think “he’s not ready for this” or “this would be great for him,” that reaction may help make your choice a little easier.

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One other thing: Small kids know they’re small. Holding him back a grade isn’t going to change that. And if he’s really that small, he may even find it more odd or embarrassing height-wise to be held back a grade, where he finds that many kids a full year younger are still taller than he is. I also wouldn’t expect children to bully a smaller kid at that age.

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Ultimately, I would probably err on the side of sending him, but if you go and you still feel like waiting will be better, I can understand that.

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

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I live in a city where schools have been fully remote since the beginning of the pandemic. My children, who are in first and fourth grade, attend a small and well-regarded public elementary school. Both kids are typical in their development and generally good at school.

We went into this year cautiously optimistic that their school would be creative and flexible in making remote instruction work as well as possible. I’m a teacher (of college students), and I figured I could supplement remote instruction if needed. While it’s gone reasonably well for my first grader, it became clear quickly that my fourth grader’s teacher was ill-suited to remote instruction. She struggles mightily with the technology, to the point where my daughter was receiving no instruction, no assessments, and no meaningful feedback. She scolded the kids for failing to complete assignments she didn’t actually provide links to, among other things. After trying to make it work for a couple of months (with both her and the principal), I concluded that change was unlikely and opted to homeschool that child.

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Now the district and the teachers’ union have reached an agreement to finish the year with (at most) two hours per day of in-person instruction per week. I understand that teachers are not happy with this because they won’t have adequate time to prepare or adequate in-class staffing support (although their class size will be essentially half of normal). Kids will have no recess, no lunch, no access to in-person specials, and no school-wide activities. I have no reason to believe that a return to full-time in-person education is likely in the fall. At this time, the state health authority’s rules on personal space won’t allow it.

The thought of my daughter having had essentially no school from mid third grade to the end of fourth grade is something I can accept. According to the testing I can access, she’s working above grade level. She has a therapist. I think she’s okay. But to extend this—half-school at best—for another year is unthinkable to me. She wants to go back where her friends are and finish elementary school in that building, even if it’s just two masked and distanced hours per day. If I send her, this year or next year, I feel like I’m sending her into a situation where normal expectations of teaching and learning have been indefinitely suspended, and it’s entirely possible that not much teaching and learning will go on.

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I’ve lost faith and don’t feel like her school will teach my bright and capable child at grade level, let alone at her level. My feelings of being let down and unheard are intense. I fantasize about moving or finding a private school that will take us. The time to make that move would be right now. I would like to be able to trust my city’s public schools again, but I don’t know how to get there. Do you have any words of wisdom?

—Involuntary Homeschool Mom

Dear Involuntary Homeschool Mom,

I’m so sorry you’re going through this—it sounds incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, I feel compelled to advocate on behalf of the public school, as a public school teacher myself. On the other hand, I’m also a parent, and if I were in your shoes, I’m sure I would be making the same calculations.

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Back in October, I was required by my district to return to school (while still offering online learning to families who chose that option). Thus, my daughter went to kindergarten in person. I was very worried about what it would be like for her, wearing a mask all day and staying six feet apart. She does not have in-person specials (they do P.E., art, and music via Zoom in her classroom), and she does not eat lunch in the cafeteria. There was no Halloween carnival (“Boo Fest”) or spring move-a-thon like last year. She basically stays in her classroom until recess. And you know what? She loves school! She loves being with her teacher in person, making new friends, and—of course—recess. It’s definitely not the kindergarten experience I had imagined for her, but she’s much happier now than she was before school reopened.

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Of course this hasn’t been completely without risk. There has not been a coronavirus outbreak at her school, but there have been some cases; in fact, my daughter had to quarantine for two weeks after being exposed at school (luckily, she did not get sick). But my kid’s school is open all day, and your daughters will only be at school for two hours. That said, I would recommend you take your daughters’ wishes into consideration when making this decision. The comfort and familiarity of children’s school and their friendships are important, perhaps equally important as academics considering the upheaval quarantine life has wrought. I would not underestimate the school’s significance to your daughters.

I also think you can hold out some hope for the fall, since vaccinations (including teacher vaccination) are rising, and the CDC has changed their guidelines to indicate that students can be spaced three feet apart instead of six. As we get closer to summer, districts should be making public announcements about their intentions for the 2021-2022 school year. I would try to find out their plan before leaving the school for good.

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That said, I would understand why you’d want to explore your options, not just for the sake of your children’s academic growth but for your own career and sanity. Homeschooling while working full-time is untenable.

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I apologize that I haven’t given you any actual wisdom. How can I, when this is all unprecedented? I have felt myself pulled back and forth many times in the past year, from being anxious about a return to in-person learning to wanting my own children to return to school, from wanting to defend teachers’ unions against public criticism while also understanding the deep frustrations of parents. I am sure that if you walk away from this school, you will not do so lightly. Good luck to you, and good luck to your girls.

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My family moved to a new state last summer, in the middle of the pandemic. In the fall, our three kids (a third grader and twin kindergartners) attended hybrid classes for about a week at the public school, but my husband and I quickly decided that they needed to be in school more frequently. We decided to look into private school for them, and we ended up choosing a small Catholic school.

The kids have been very happy at the school. It’s a close-knit community with a lot of traditions. However, I didn’t realize the school would be so highly focused on academics. My twins are doing work in their kindergarten class that my older child did in first grade. My older child typically has 4-5 homework assignments a night in third grade.

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My twins are a young 5 and reminisce about the crafts and creative play from their Montessori-type preschool. I feel like it will be even harder when they have to start doing weekly spelling tests in first grade. If I could do it all over again, I would have my twins repeat preschool this year instead of entering kindergarten.

I am considering talking to the twins’ teacher about having them repeat kindergarten just to give them a little more time before the rigors of first grade. I know my twins will want to move to first grade with their class. However, I would really like for them to have more time to mature into the workload of this school. We have considered switching them to a different school, but the kids have already gone through COVID and an interstate move. What do you think?

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—Trying to Navigate It All

Dear Trying to Navigate,

I’m glad you were able to find a school community your kids have enjoyed during this stressful time, even though it sounds like the pace of learning is moving a little more quickly than your kids are used to. I think you’re right to be cautious of relocating your kids to another school. Three moves in such a short amount of time can be destabilizing for younger students. Adjusting to new norms, making new friends, all while beginning first grade is a lot change.

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That said, judging by your letter, I do wonder whether your current school is the right long-term fit for your family. It’s important to keep in mind a decision like this doesn’t only impact your kids academically, but developmentally and emotionally as well. Retention is a big deal, and I only recommend retaining a student if there are serious academic or developmental concerns, which doesn’t seem to be the case for your twins.  Even though your kids are young, from what you describe they don’t seem to be exhibiting any learning differences or delays, and retaining them could have the opposite intended effect and stunt their development overall.

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It sounds like holding your children back a grade would ultimately only serve as a Band-Aid for a larger problem, which is that this school’s approach to academics is a bit too heavy-handed for you. It’s not uncommon for Catholic schools to be a bit less progressive when it comes to academics, and it’s possible a school with a bit more creativity and freedom could be a better fit for your family.

Ultimately, I believe giving them a fresh start in a new learning environment that accommodates their needs and learning styles seems like the better option to me. The academic expectations of your current school aren’t going to change, and if your fourth grader is currently completing 4–5 homework assignments a night, I wonder how well your twins will fare at this school over time. In the long run, I believe finding a happy medium between school climate and academic approach will always yield a better experience for kids. In your twins’ case I believe ripping off the Band-Aid and finding a school that works for them now outweighs the potential drawbacks of changing schools a third time.

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

I have an elementary school-aged son who has an IEP for speech. He is doing great and likely will not need services after his next IEP. I also have a 4-year-old daughter in the early education speech program. I absolutely love her teachers and the program itself.

My son’s experience with his speech-language pathologist (SLP) has not been stellar. Communication with her has been limited. Our school system started out hybrid, switched to distance learning, and now is back in person. As a result, my son lost about six weeks of services as his speech pathologist worked on transitioning with the different models. In addition, I’ve found her unwilling to work with me on when he receives his services during the school day, so that he can avoid missing his favorite subjects. In fact, the scheduling was such a problem while he was doing distance learning, I wound up pulling him out of speech and doing it with him from home myself.

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I find myself worrying for the future. My daughter will need far more services, and I don’t trust this teacher to give them to her. The teacher is the only SLP in the school. Should I speak up now about the lack of communication, services, and poor scheduling in hopes of having a better experience with my daughter, or should I wait and see if things change in the future? I should note that even thinking about this situation makes my blood boil. I can’t imagine what this must be like for parents of children with more needs or who still have to work outside the home.

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—Cat’s Got Our Tongue

Dear Cat,

My suggestion is that when your daughter’s planning and placement team (PPT) meets to discuss her services, you go into it with a well-thought plan. Make it clear that you feel your son’s struggles were in part because the school was unwilling to work out a schedule that would set your son up for success, and you don’t want that to happen to your daughter. I would also request a specific communication plan with service providers, and if possible, have that written into her IEP. You can also ask what you should expect to see to make up lost hours if your daughter’s service time is interrupted.

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By bringing up these issues at a PPT, this speech teacher may not feel so singled out, and you can also garner the support of other teachers or administrators who will be at this meeting. I would not wait to see how things go for your daughter, but rather be exceedingly specific and proactive from the onset. An initial, specific, written plan will allow you to hold their feet to the fire if they fail your daughter.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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