Care and Feeding

Is My Child Really Ready for Kindergarten?

A 5-year-old boy proudly wears his backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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.

My 4-year-old son is currently in what could be his last year of preschool. While one option for him for the fall is to attend kindergarten, our county also offers a special pre-K program for disadvantaged and special needs students to help them be better equipped socially and academically when they do begin kindergarten. My son, who is autistic, recently qualified for this special pre-K program, which is 4 full school days.

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I have always imagined him doing a program like the pre-K program because he lacks social skills with other children and has many sensory issues. However, his teachers are recommending kindergarten as the next step because he is doing so well academically. He has always been interested in numbers, letters, and shapes, and his teachers report that he is well ahead of his peers and often bored. For example, my son has started to read on his own, but they don’t do formal instruction in reading until kindergarten. If he were to do the pre-K program, he would have another year of phonics review. His teachers also report that he does great in small group, but he has trouble during free play. The pre-K program has lots of free play while kindergarten is more structured.

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While kindergarten sounds great in many ways, he already struggles socially and doesn’t have friends, and I’m worried about the long-term impact of him being one of the younger kids and being socially immature. However, I’m also worried about him not being challenged, getting bored, and in the long-term not learning the skills he needs later when school does become challenging. Please help!

—Move Ahead or Stay Back?

Dear MAoSB,

The good news here is that you have two very good options. It doesn’t sound, to me, like one choice is better than the other. If he goes to the preschool program, he will have additional time to build social skills and emotionally mature. If he goes to kindergarten, he can access academic enrichment that it sounds like he would enjoy. You really can’t go wrong.

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I’ve said in this column before that I am against holding kids back from kindergarten in 99 percent of cases. For the most part, if a child is old enough and mature enough for a day of kindergarten—which, to be clear, is designed to be developmentally appropriate for most, if not all, 5-year-olds—there’s no good reason to keep them in preschool. Preschools often see behaviors from their oldest kids that kindergartens don’t see the following year because kids get bored. You don’t want your son learning to act out because he has recited the alphabet dozens of times already.

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Meanwhile, schools are absolutely prepared to address social skills. Many schools have “friendship group” or other programs to teach students the skills they need to have positive relationships with peers. Especially as the pandemic is prolonged, students are beginning to come in with a lack of social skills due to lack of exposure. But even prior to the pandemic, school policy is typically to assume kindergarteners have no prior experience making friends. We teach kids what to do because we want them to learn those so-called “soft skills” in addition to academics.

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Because your son already has a diagnosis, and qualifies for a special program, I have to assume he would qualify for an IEP or 504 plan as well. Under one of these plans, you could have the school provide him with social-emotional counseling to develop social skills. A goal would be established for addressing those social skills, and you would receive reports from the school about his progress toward that goal. You would likely even have some input into the goal. In an IEP—which is more standardized than a 504—there is even a section specifically dedicated to parent concerns.

Ultimately, as I said, there is no bad choice. I think either program option is probably fine. My bias leans a bit toward sending him to school, and school can probably provide a lot of similar supports to the special program. But if you and your partner really, truly feel like he’s not ready, send him to the special program. He will likely do well there too.

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

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I have spent my entire career (12 years) teaching at one school. My students are wonderful, but I don’t agree with the direction the school is taking. Our administration recently banned multiple books from our classrooms, and I am beyond ready to move on.

When do I need to inform admin that I will not be coming back? They’re about to send out their yearly email survey “exploring our interest in returning,” but they will not formally offer us next year’s contract until late May.

Right now, I am looking for other positions (hopefully remote) that I can balance with finishing my doctorate. Obviously, I’ll need strong references from this school to get a new position, and I hope to have another job lined up by May. I am great at my job, and normally, I would not be worried about a reference—but because of the massive teacher turnover during the pandemic, admin has been acting like resignations are a personal betrayal, rather than a career decision.

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How should I approach the timing of this transition?

—Ready to Hang My Hat

Dear Ready,

My school district has a deadline for resignations. Failing to meet it can sometimes mean the administration won’t release a teacher from their contract, which can get very messy, so you definitely don’t want to find yourself in that boat.

Since you’re actively looking for a new job right now and hoping to have it lined up by the end of the semester, I think you should indicate on the survey that you are not returning. When they ask you why, you can answer honestly: you are looking for a remote position that will allow you to finish your doctorate. You don’t have to be forthcoming about your disagreement with their recent policy decisions as that might jeopardize your recommendation. While the administration will be disappointed with your decision, I doubt they would stymie your efforts.

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I’m sorry to see another good teacher leave the profession, but I understand completely and wish you the best of luck on what comes next!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My 4-year-old son turns 5 in June. After several preschool fails, he is thriving in a half-day Montessori program. He is both gifted and ADHD, has big sensory needs, and struggles with transitions. I think he’s doing well in Montessori because the learning is tactile and he is able to be so self-directed. While he is making great progress there, he definitely comes home needing a lot of one-on-one adult time. He spends this time playing highly imaginative games, building with Legos or learning about his interests (currently the Inca and the Maya). He also has been having meltdowns more frequently, because I think he is tired from school.

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I’m struggling with what to do about kindergarten next year. I could keep him in his private school, but it would be expensive, a bit of a drive, and most of his friends will be in preschool for another year.

I’ve found another private Montessori close to our new house that is half-day he could attend, but then there would be another transition for first grade as even if he stayed at that school, it only goes through kindergarten.

I could also enroll him in the local highly rated public school which has a half-day kindergarten, but I’m concerned a more traditional classroom would not be a good fit for him. At minimum I think it’s highly likely he would need an IEP to help with transitions. What is a public school going to do when he screams and clings to me and refuses to enter the classroom? How will they manage his ADHD when touching everything is not part of learning, and he can’t get up and transition to a new work whenever he wants to? I wish I could just wait and see how he’s doing in the spring but for some local schools the registration is due very soon.

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For what it’s worth he is very vocal about only wanting to do Montessori school. He hated the play-based preschool we tried. He was bored silly and never connected with the other kids. He also refused to participate in many of the activities such as music and movement and circle time. At his current school he has made some great friends and his teachers tell me he is cooperative and helpful in the classroom.

Should I keep him where he is another year? Keep him in Montessori for half day? Give the public school a chance?

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—Montessori or Bust?

Dear MoB,

My instinct is to give the public school a chance. In all likelihood, it sounds like he will end up in public school by second grade, and having an IEP coming into kindergarten gives the school time to establish a relationship with him before academics become a larger focal point of IEPs. Of course, we do work on academics in kindergarten, but it’s more common to see behavioral goals in the earlier grades, especially in an integrated program (which sounds like it would be the plan). Transitioning in kindergarten also means he can make that transition during a year where there’s a large focus on school-ready behaviors (how to walk in a line, how to rotate between learning centers) for him to ease into “regular” school as opposed to the Montessori model. The half-day aspect is helpful too—it will tax him less and make things smoother, as well as give him lots of time for exploratory learning outside the classroom!

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As for what schools will do if he has a hard time leaving your side—he will not be the only one. Teachers are outside for the purpose of greeting kids, especially on the first day of school, and we are prepared to help kids with that separation anxiety. In the absolute worst-case scenario I’ve seen, we can designate an adult to greet an anxious child every day to help them separate from their parent.

In my experience, there are ways to ease that stress: Give it time, as he may take a month or more to acclimate. Remember that crying on the way in doesn’t usually mean crying once they’re in the classroom. You can use a special object (photo of mom or stuffed animal or whatever) to help ease the transition. And finally remember that the bus is actually easier than drop-off, if bussing is an option for you.

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If he gets up during class? Kids who are wanderers in preschool often aren’t in kindergarten because the activities are more challenging and thus more engaging. And I can assure you your son won’t be the first child the kindergarten teachers have had that want to get up when they’re done with an activity (and he won’t be the last). Statistically, he’s not even likely to be the only child with ADHD in the class. Teachers know how to engage kids so they stay in their seats, and they know how to gently nudge them back into their seats if they do get up.

Kindergarten is very different from play-based preschool. Activities are more structured, but also often more interesting. Your son, who has only known success in Montessori school, may not understand that difference. My suggestion would be to try to the school, and let the IEP team do their best to support him so he can build a relationship with the school, rather than prolonging it another year or two.

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

Do you have any advice or strategies for how to deal with my ninth grade daughter and her homework habits? I suspect she has ADD—we’re currently waiting on the results. Last semester was her first semester in high school, and the transition was very rocky. She got quite behind in chemistry (about three whole units) and had an F. She had to work very hard over about 2 weeks to try to catch up. She got up to a B in her coursework, but with her bad performance on an end of course test, she ended up getting a C in the class. She’s very smart and in honors classes, so I know she can do the work academically. I want to make sure she doesn’t get so behind again, so I’ve been checking in with her more frequently since the start of this semester.

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I’m noticing a trend, though, that I’m not sure how to address. All of her work is on her Chromebook, and when I check in with her, she’s “working on it,” but she isn’t getting done until 11:30 at night! I start bugging her about it around 6. She can’t have been “working on it” for 5 whole hours! Are there any strategies that I can use to make sure she isn’t wasting time watching YouTube on the Chromebook? Make her sit at the table until she can show me the completed work? Make a time limit, and if she isn’t done by then take away her computer? I’m at my wits’ end trying to make sure she has the support she needs while still making sure she gets her work done.

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—Wits’ End

Dear Wits’ End,

I think you’re right that your daughter is using “doing homework” as an excuse to have alone/personal time and is in fact texting with friends and watching YouTube. (At least I hope she is and that she doesn’t truly have five hours of homework. If she really does, that’s a separate problem.) Mixing downtime and homework isn’t a crime…if she can make the grade.

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But, if she can’t make the grade, if the near failure with chemistry isn’t an isolated incident, then you’re right that she needs to alter her study habits. While your proposed solutions are sound (yes there are ways to put restrictions on what she can access with her Chromebook; sitting her at the kitchen table will probably make her finish faster, though it might make you both miserable too), the problem with them is that they’re your solutions. I could recommend the 20-5 ratio, where a student works for twenty focused minutes, then takes five minutes to do whatever they want. But that would be my solution. If we want real change, your daughter needs to buy into a solution that is hers.

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Take her out for some ice cream and have an honest conversation about what she perceives the problem to be. Listen to her. Ask her what she would do differently to solve it. If she feels heard and gets to be a part of the solution, she’ll have buy-in to that strategy, her strategy, which makes it more likely to succeed (as opposed to her sabotaging your ideas because she doesn’t want your solutions to work). If you couch this conversation under the guise of, “I’m not going to be nagging you anymore,” then there’s built-in incentive for her to come up with her own plan. It probably won’t be what you would do and it might not work at first. But those are the lessons that come with maturity and at least she’ll have learned what not to do. Failure is the most valuable of experiences, far more valuable than the experience of fighting with your parent. And the sweetest thing about her failing will be the conversation that comes with it. You know… because of the ice cream.

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My fifth grade daughter brought up a concern about gym class, and I’m debating how to handle it. Her teacher has worked for the district for over 30 years and has won state teaching awards. He’s got some old-school vibes, but he is engaging and the kids love him. The trouble is, he often segments the class by gender. “Alternate by boy-girl” or “Boys line up on the green line, girls on blue.” One of my daughter’s classmates recently came out as non-binary. What should I do?

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