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When His Birthday is On the Cusp: How to Decide if Your Child is Grade School Ready

When your child's birthday is oh-so-close to a school's cutoff date for enrollment, what's the wise course of action?

little girl and boy doing schoolwork; brother and sister doing their homework; sister helping brother with homework

Every school year, parents make hundreds of decisions regarding their child's education. But for parents whose children have birthdays on the cusp between one school year and the next, the most difficult decision arises before the school year even begins: When will our child start school?

   It's a decision parents know will dramatically impact their child and, once made, will be hard to undo. Teachers, psychologists, family members, friends and other parents all have opinions. But, when it's your child, how do you decide?

   Joann Perahia, the mother of identical twins Alex and Philippe Haussmann, was faced with the decision about a decade ago. The boys' December 12 birthday fell just before the cutoff date, December 31. Their Upper East Side school wanted to put them into first grade. Perahia, their mother, who had met with teachers, parents and a child development psychologist, preferred kindergarten. The stalemate was never resolved.

"There is no hard and fast rule that can be used to make this decision."

   Instead, the family moved to suburban Port Washington, where the cutoff date was December 1. Perahia no longer had to advocate for her sons to be held back. Though she could have advocated for her children to move up in school, she did not. It's a decision she still regrets.

   "It dumbed them down and turned them off to school," Perahia said. "Sometimes we make decisions thinking it's the best, and it may not be."

   Kim Har, Ph.D., the director of Childhood Education for Aristotle Circle, an agency that matches parents to education experts and admissions consultants, acknowledges that the decision of when to place a child in a classroom can be especially challenging. "It's a very individualized and different choice for each child and family," Har says. "The most important thing to remember is that - particularly during early childhood - children develop at very different and unpredictable rates. Therefore, there is no hard and fast rule that can be used to make this decision. Parents must consider their child's development and gauge his readiness as objectively as possible."

   Immaturity, lack of physical development and lack of school readiness skills are three of the most common reasons for delaying enrollment. Experts also caution that children who are moved ahead but do not perform well could end up feeling frustrated and experience stress, low self-confidence and school-related anxiety.

   On the other hand, a child's enrollment is encouraged if a child spends most of his time at home and needs to be socialized, or has accelerated development patterns. Many proponents of moving children ahead in school ignore arguments about children's physical size, because children develop at different times.


Do Your Homework

Before enrolling a child in school, experts encourage parents to visit the classrooms that the child would be enrolled in, to meet with the teachers and consult with education specialists and psychologists to make a well-informed decision.

   If a child is enrolled in school too early, it is not easily remedied. If he remains at the same school, the only option is to hold the child back, which usually leads to feelings of failure, frustration, low self-confidence and an intense dislike of school. If, however, a child is enrolled as one of the oldest and excels, she can be skipped a grade in the future.

   That's what happened to Laurel Clark, who grew up in Mt. Vernon. Clark was one of the oldest children in her kindergarten class. With a January 29 birthday, she missed the then-December 31 cutoff to move into the next grade. By first grade, however, she was incredibly bored. A few tests confirmed she had a very high IQ, and she was skipped from first to second grade. She thrived academically, ultimately graduating valedictorian of her high school class at age 17.

   Clark's social skills, however, were lacking, and made her classroom placement difficult throughout elementary and middle school. A quiet student who preferred reading to playing games, she was picked last for sports teams and feared being ridiculed. She often felt uncomfortable in groups and became embarrassed easily. Other students teased her about getting good grades.

   Looking back, though, Clark wouldn't have changed her parents' decision. "I still love learning and education and am glad that I was encouraged to be challenged rather than being kept safe," she said.

   Perahia, the mother of the twins who are among the oldest in their class, would change her decision in a heartbeat. "The idea that I ascribed to was that your child should be the oldest, not the youngest; and I now do not believe that at all," she said. "My grandmother had always said to me, 'Surround yourself with people smarter than you and you will be smart.' She was right."

   At the end of the day, it's always a judgment call. Asking others like Clark and Perahia for their personal experiences can certainly help you navigate the waters, though, so ask around. And, most importantly, observe your child.

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Amber Greviskes

Author: Amber Greviskes is a frequent contributor to NYMetroParents. She lives in New York, and has also contributed to "Parenting" and "BabyTalk" magazines. See More

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