When Andy Kangelaris was 4 years old, he was bright, articulate, socially adept and emotionally mature. That’s why his mother, Reston resident Debbie Kangelaris, struggled with the decision to delay his entry into kindergarten. “He had a July birthday, and even though he did very well in his preschool, I wondered if he would do better if we waited that extra year,” she says.
She and her husband, Alex, talked to everyone they knew, interviewed Andy’s teachers and agonized over the issue. Mrs. Kangelaris says the decisive moment came one day when she was picking up Andy from school and compared his artwork “of two black crayon lines” to other classmates’ intricate and colorful handiwork. The Kangelarises did wait, and Andy, now 10, is doing very well in his third-grade class. Whether out of concern about a late birthday, fear that social skills are lagging or fine-motor skills are lacking, each year some parents decide to delay their children’s start in kindergarten. Some educators say a growing number of parents are using that extra year to give their children a competitive edge on the academic road to an Ivy League school.
“We call that ‘red-shirting,’ ” says Lilian Katz, director of the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) Elementary and Early Childhood Education Clearinghouse at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That term came from college football practices, where players would be held back so they could play for an extra year. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we saw that a lot of parents waited an extra year before starting their children in school. It was a way to get ahead.”
Not by age alone
Each school district or locality determines a cutoff age for kindergarten enrollment. The eligible age varies widely, and administrators sometimes waive rules at the request of parents. For this reason, educators say, it is hard to track a national trend of delayed entry into kindergarten.
Many school districts in nearby Maryland require that a child have his or her fifth birthday by Dec. 31 to be eligible for kindergarten, and in Northern Virginia most schools have a Sept. 31 cutoff.
Educators caution parents that age alone is not an accurate indicator of kindergarten readiness.
“Turning 5 is not a magical moment,” says Laurie Meltzer Klinovsky, director of the Greenwood Nursery School and Kindergarten in Hyattsville. “It’s a whole range of things, from the ability to listen and follow directions to good small-muscle control that allows the child to hold a pencil or button their coat. If a child doesn’t have these skills, they’ll be frustrated in kindergarten.”
Educators for years have debated the issue of kindergarten readiness, not only from the perspective of the child entering kindergarten, but increasingly also from the viewpoint of the school.
A generation ago, kindergarten was almost universally a child’s first social experience outside of the home. Today, children come to kindergarten from widely divergent backgrounds. Some are reading after a few years in academically focused preschools. Others come from day care centers where they received little verbal development. Some children come from homes where reading and verbal skills were encouraged, while an increasing number come from homes where English isn’t spoken.
For that reason, Mrs. Katz, whose educational clearinghouse is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, says the trend has favored “developmental kindergartens.” These schools use flexible curricula to meet the developmental needs of their students rather than expecting the students to arrive prepared to fulfill the expectations of the academic program.
A Department of Education survey, taken in the mid-1990s of nearly 4,500 preschool children, found that a large number of 4-year-olds had not yet developed a number of key kindergarten skills. While nine out of 10 could button their coats or hold a pencil, three out of 10 were reported by their parents to be fidgety or restless, and nearly one in 4 was reported to have short attention spans.
“That’s the nature of this age group,” Mrs. Katz says. “There’s so much change and growth that goes on during this age that you’ll always have a wide disparity of developmental abilities. That’s why parents need to focus on intellectual abilities rather than academic abilities.”
She says academic learning is more passive, making it difficult for many children to sit still for lessons. The development of innate intellectual skills such as analyzing, observing, theorizing and experimenting is much more active.
“If schools overemphasize academics too early, there’s a risk that you will undermine inborn intelligence,” Mrs. Katz says. “Boys are naturally more active and have the hardest time adapting to a passive academic environment.”
Mrs. Meltzer Klinovsky, of Greenwood Nursery School and Kindergarten, says kindergartens “have changed a lot over the years. There’s much more sitting and a lot less playing.”
Large class sizes often with one teacher supervising more than 30 students give teachers little time for one-on-one teaching and necessitate curricula based on large group activities.
Parents know their children the best, says Toni Walton, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Greenwood School, and only they can decide whether their child is ready for kindergarten.
“Rather than holding children back, another option may be a private kindergarten, where classes are smaller and children get more individualized instruction,” she says.
Mrs. Walton adds that all children make marked progress in this critical year. “By the end of kindergarten, we shouldn’t expect every child to be in the same place, but everyone will have made progress from where they began,” she says.
Looking for a longer day
For many parents, a private kindergarten, or even a second year in a preschool program, is preferable to struggling with the child care dilemmas caused by a half-day kindergarten.
“That’s an issue with many of our parents,” says Paula Slavsky, director of the Beth Emeth Early Childhood Center in Reston. “Our children have been in a four-hour-long program as 4-year-olds, and then public kindergarten is only 2* hours long. It’s like a regression.”
She says Beth Emeth is researching whether to add a new program next year that would give kindergarten-age children a six-hour program. Mrs. Slavsky says Beth Emeth’s program focuses on developmental and social issues rather than academics. It has refused parents’ requests for computers because computer literacy is not what young children need.
“They need to discover the world, interact with each other, know how to be a good listener and take turns,” she says. “I don’t worry about their computer skills. I finally learned how to use a computer because I had 3-year-olds coming in and knowing more about that than I did.”
Anne Counts, who teaches a class of 4-year-olds at Greenwood School, says parents can do a lot at home to help their children gain needed skills for kindergarten success.
“Of course, exposing children to reading and verbal skills is very important,” she says, “but equally important is building up their independence and self-esteem. Parents are always so surprised when they visit the class and see how much their children can do for themselves. But they should be given tasks and chores at home to help them establish their independence.”
Each child is different, says Mrs. Counts, and parents need to make their decisions about kindergarten readiness based on their child’s needs, the new school’s program and the recommendations of their child’s preschool teacher. Ultimately, however, nothing will substitute for their parental instincts.
“I tell parents, if they have doubts, then hold [the child] back. It’s much better for the child to go through a 4-year-old class twice than to repeat kindergarten. They’re much more cognizant of their social standing once they reach school age.”
She says it’s better to be “on top of the heap than on the bottom,” and it’s always possible to move a child ahead at a later point.
Mrs. Kangelaris says that each year she evaluates Andy’s situation with his teacher, and each year they have concluded that although he’s a few months older than most of his classmates, he’s in the right place.
“My son is definitely a leader in his class,” she says. “I look ahead and think of him as a mature driver and a more mature teen, and I have no regrets about our decision.”
Mrs. Kangelaris says when she was struggling to make her decision, her son’s nursery school teacher gave her the best advice when she said, “What better gift can you give your child than the gift of time?”