Ready for Kindergarten Readiness?

Question: I’m the parent of a 4-year-old, and I keep getting questions from my friends and family about what I’m doing to get her “ready for kindergarten.” I’ve been lucky to be able to stay home with her, so she hasn’t had to be in day care. Just this year she’s been going to a half-day mixed-age program at our church, and she loves it, but I know it’s much different from what she’ll find next year. I’m worried that she might not know everything they will expect her to know when she starts school. How can I tell if my daughter is “ready,” and if she’s not, what can I do now to get her there?

Answer: “Kindergarten readiness” has become quite the buzzterm in the past few years, as school systems have increasingly moved to a high stakes testing model that penalizes teachers and schools if children are not performing at a certain level in each grade. This has contributed to making the early school years far more academic than they once were. A generation ago, most children did not even attend kindergarten, and when they started first grade they were not expected to know letters, numbers, or colors already: that’s what they were there to learn.

Now, though, it’s a different story. The increased pressure on teachers and school systems has been passed right down to kids, who are expected to master complex academic skills like beginning reading in the first few months of kindergarten. Many schools have also reduced play time and specials for young children in the hopes that more time focused on rigorous academics will speed up learning and boost scores.

The nature of children, of course, has not changed nearly as much as expectations have. Most children entering kindergarten are five years old, with brains that still require lots of rest, exploratory play, and hands-on learning. Although some five-year-olds are ready to sit quietly for long periods, learning abstract skills, many more are not. An increasing number of children are identified as having ADHD and other behavioral issues, which many experts believe is due in part to unrealistic expectations that their brains and bodies are simply not ready to cope with.

But, don’t panic! An enormous body of research has shown that children’s test scores and reading proficiency actually go up when they are given time to run around, use their whole bodies, and engage in free play periods throughout the day, and some school systems are trying to shift back to this model. Research also shows that the most important skills children come to kindergarten with are not about letters and numbers: children who succeed in school come in knowing how to make friends, interact with adults appropriately, follow directions, and are curious about learning.

Helping your child get ready for school really means teaching her how to learn, and exposing her to a variety of different social situations. A half-day program is great for that, as is interacting children in informal play settings like a park. Helping her feel confident as a learner also has a huge impact, so spend lots of time listening to her questions – 4-year-olds usually have tons – and helping her think through problems or topics she’s curious about. For example, if she asks what makes a car go, take her to the library to find basic books about engineering and mechanics. Talk to a mechanic with her, or a friend who likes to fix cars, and see if she can get a first-hand look at the insides of a vehicle. These types of experiences will give her a sense of herself as curious, smart, and capable, and be a great foundation for learning of all kinds once she starts school.

As always, you know your child best. If you really have concerns about her development, definitely talk to your pediatrician. I’d also encourage you to check in regularly with her teachers, to get a feel for whether they think she’s on track. Teachers can be a fantastic resource about child development and the types of skills that are realistic to expect at different ages. And remember that all children grow and learn in their own ways, at different rates and often in non-linear patterns. The best way to get your child ready for challenges at any age is to support her social and emotional development, encourage her unique interests, personality, and learning style, and help identify the type of environment in which she can best thrive.