I knelt to tie Kevin's sneakers. "Please don't make me go to kindergarten, mommy…," he said, his misty eyes staring into mine.
"You'll have a wonderful time," I said, glancing up at the brick building. "You'll see." I couldn't understand this sudden bout of separation anxiety; Kevin had attended all-day pre-school for four years - ever since I'd gone back to work full-time. Still, watching his tiny silhouette disappear through the doorway, I felt my stomach knot. He turned back just once, his face covered with tears.
I left work early to greet the bus at the after-school program, but spent an hour pacing the sidewalk, awaiting its arrival. When the last child had descended, the driver signaled to the program supervisor, who was armed with a clipboard. Peering over her shoulder, I noticed every name on her list was checked off. Every name but one.
The knot in my stomach was now a knife.
The bus driver found Kevin two hours later, at the depot. He'd been on the bus the entire time; slumped in the back seat, sound asleep. I later learned he had cried all day. Kevin knew his ABCs. He could count to 20 and bounce a ball. He could even write his name. But emotionally, he wasn't ready to leave the nurturing environment of pre-school. Most children entering kindergarten are five or five-and-a-half by September.
Kevin, born mid-October, was still four.
Many parents in today's fast-paced arena want their children to excel as early as possible. But, say parenting experts, for emotionally immature children, the fast track can cause permanent harm to their self-esteem.
According to Meri Wallace, M.S.W., a child and parenting therapist for 19 years, and director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development in Brooklyn Heights, "If a child hasn't fully developed his social and emotional skills, he'll have a hard time adjusting to the daily routine of kindergarten, even if he's been reading since three."
Such was the case for Chris's daughter, Kaiti, who cried so hysterically every morning when Chris brought her to school, she developed severe stomach aches. "Kaiti's teachers had to literally pull her from my neck," says Chris. "Her teachers all felt she should cry it out. They said things would improve. When? In June?" Kaiti's pediatrician also felt Chris should stand firm about Kaiti going to school. But Chris's gut told her otherwise. She pulled Kaiti out in January and took her back to pre-school.
A year later, Kaiti is in kindergarten and blossoming. "Now she has age and maturity on her side," says Chris. "She's academically ahead of her peers, but emotionally she's ready."
Desiré J. Ford, director of River Park Nursery School in Manhattan, agrees that social and emotional development are critical in determining kindergarten readiness. "A child is better off being older among slightly developmentally younger children," says Ford, "than being the youngest among a group of children who are older developmentally."
Kindergarten readiness checklists outline the critical skills children should acquire before entering kindergarten. But experts caution against comparing children against these guidelines alone. "Some young children are still developing many enabling skills," says Wallace. "Cutting with scissors and zipping a zipper take time."
"To say there are particular things a four-year-old must do puts that child at an immediate disadvantage," says Ford. Some checklists suggest a child should be able to write his name, "but that's not a fair expectation," says Ford. "Not all children are physically ready to write by age five. More important is whether that child is well developed socially and emotionally - that he gets along with others and works out problems verbally."
Anita Gurian, Ph.D., psychologist and executive editor of the NYU School of Medicine's Child Study Center Website, www.aboutourkids.org, agrees. "A child's language skills should be pretty well developed," says Gurian. "A child should understand expressions like 'bigger than' and 'before and after,' as well as grasp the concept of adjusting language to others." Gurian says a child should be able to play with another child and set up a goal together, like building a tower. "This capacity for giving and taking in play is a measure of a child's social maturity," she says.
While the decision of whether or not to delay kindergarten is fairly common these days, years ago it was rarely considered. Meri Wallace's own son, now an adult, has a November birthday. Throughout his school years Wallace felt his being one of the youngest did make a difference. "It made social relationships harder for him. Children six months older were in a different place in their emotional development."
"We've often found that parents of a child with a mid-year birthday are torn between moving their child forward versus staying another year within our setting," says Desiré Ford. "Just because a child falls within the chronological age for acceptance at kindergarten doesn't mean that child is ready developmentally. Each child's situation should be examined on an individual basis." Ford says a child lacking in social and emotional development will not be looking forward to new places and new experiences, which is what kindergarten essentially is about.
"Preschool offers more time to grow emotionally and socially, as it focuses on emotions and relationships," says Wallace, who also works as a nursery school consultant in Brooklyn Heights. "Why rush it?"
Sarah didn't feel her son, Jason, who wouldn't be five until the first week of school, was socially ready for kindergarten. "He was doing fine academically," says Sarah, "but he didn't interact well with large groups of kids his own age." She and her husband made the decision to delay kindergarten mostly on their own, although they did talk to several other parents about it. The year delay made a big difference for Jason. "He's one of the oldest kids in his class, rather than one of the youngest," says Sarah, "and he feels like a leader."
The gift of an extra year enabled my son Kevin to blossom as well. He's now in third grade, makes friends easily, and has great confidence in his abilities.
While experts agree boys are more often delayed than girls, and that a child's birthday month can play a factor in his or her readiness, parents shouldn't generalize. Suzy's son Ian was born in August. "Many people suggested we wait to start school simply because he was a boy with a summer birthday," says Suzy. "I hated that generalization. We knew he was ready socially and emotionally and have never once regretted starting him when we did. Ian's now in sixth grade where he excels in all areas. Our son proves the point that each child is different."
Sometimes the problem can be the kindergarten program itself. "There's a big gap between school expectations," says Anita Gurian. "It's important to know the school and the readiness of the child for that school."
"Researching schools is key," says Ford, who's familiar with each of the elementary schools in her area. Ford and team of teachers begin discussing kindergarten with parents the November prior to the year their child is scheduled to attend. They provide parents with literature about each school, and connect them with other parents whose children already attend. "Each school has its own distinct climate," says Ford, "and we feel it's important for parents to fully explore their options."
"Children develop at individual rates and have different needs," says Wallace. "Some need a cocoon-like environment a little longer." One such cocoon is the Early Childhood Center, P.S. 875, in Manhattan district 2. With current enrollment of 135 students in grades pre-K through second, director Alyssa Polack knows all of the children by name, and interacts with them and their parents on a regular basis.
"We rarely have a problem transitioning a child from our pre-k to kindergarten," says Polack. "The children already know the teachers, they know the environment, they know the daily routines. It's a natural progression."
Sometimes parents, particularly those of boys who won't be five in September, ask if they should wait another year before moving a child forward. "Every child's situation is different. " says Polack. "Kindergarten is a year to continue growing and adjusting." She suggests that repeating kindergarten and delaying first grade - if necessary - is preferable to delaying kindergarten. "But," she adds, "we're a small school and offer a very nurturing environment. A larger school will present a child with a lot more challenges. Even something as simple as finding the bathroom in an unfamiliar hallway can be pretty scary for a young child."
Deciding whether or not to delay your child's entry into kindergarten shouldn't be taken lightly. Each child is unique. If you have concerns about your child's readiness, consult the school administrator, or an outside therapist. Talk to other parents. But in the end, go with your gut. You know your child better than anyone.
A readiness test: The following list of indicators, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, can serve as a guide in assessing your child's readiness to begin school.
The child … _is in good health and is able to both see and hear well; _demonstrates independence in self-care skills like dressing, toileting, eating and hand-washing; • can follow directions and has begun to develop an attention span; • is able to share and take turns; _speaks clearly and demonstrates age-appropriate language skills; _knows and can recite his or her full name as well as the names of his or her parents; _can work independently for short periods of time; _plays in small groups with other children; _tolerates frustration and failure; _accepts adult supervision and help and easily makes changes when asked to do so.