- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

Mairead Hunter Herbers, 17, has always been the youngest in her class. When many girls in her class reached puberty, she had not, and when her classmates got their learner’s permits, she couldn’t.

“Now people say, ‘You can’t be in college, you’re only 17,’” says Miss Herbers, who grew up in Takoma Park and goes to North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Nevertheless, though being the youngest sometimes has been inconvenient — she can’t go to certain over-18 concerts with her classmates — and has raised an eyebrow or two, she says it has never affected her grades.

“I think I would’ve been bored if I’d been held back,” she says.

Her mother, Kristin Hunter, however, says she worried, particularly in the early years, that her daughter might not be ready for the academic and social demands of kindergarten and first grade.

“I always watched her closely to see if there were any warning signs that she wasn’t mature enough, but she fit right in,” Ms. Hunter says.

As kindergarten and first grade have become tougher academically through the years, states, including Maryland, are tweaking the age requirement for starting school, says Rolf Grafwallner, coordinator for early learning programs at the Maryland State Department of Education.

“So many teachers and principals say that the curricular rigor has changed, and some of the younger children can’t handle it,” Mr. Grafwallner says. “Kindergarten is very different from what it used to be in the 1970s, when the heavy emphasis was on socialization. … Now we have things like systematic reading instruction.”

Not all research supports the notion that older children do better academically, at least not in the long run.

“Advantage for the older child pretty much disappears with time in school,” says Debra Stipek, dean and professor of education at Stanford University.

Gender differences also do not persist over time, Ms. Stipek says.

Emotional and social differences between 5-year-olds and those not quite 5 yet have not been studied enough to make any definite conclusions, she says.

Still, many states have responded to the increased academic rigor by rolling back the cutoff date for kindergarten. In Maryland, children used to be able to start kindergarten if they turned 5 years old by Dec. 31. That has been changed to Oct. 31 in a gradual rollback that will change the date to Sept. 30 next year and Sept. 1 in 2006.

The cutoff date in Virginia, which also has tweaked the age requirement, is Sept. 30. In the District, it’s Dec. 31.

Academic, emotional readiness

What happens if parents are convinced their child is ready for school even if he or she is too young to enter?

The answer is that different jurisdictions have different rules. In Virginia, the cutoff for kindergarten doesn’t provide any wiggle room, says Lena Goresky, education specialist in the Office of Early Childhood and Family Services at Fairfax County Public Schools.

“We are bound by the state law,” Ms. Goresky says. “It does not permit waivers or considerations based on out-of-state school transfers or student skills.”

In Maryland, it’s up to individual county school boards to decide whether children whose birthdays fall just after the cutoff should be allowed to enter kindergarten after being evaluated. Montgomery County, for example, has an evaluation process in place, but Prince George’s County doesn’t, Mr. Grafwallner says.

When evaluating children’s readiness, the school system is looking not only at academic skills, but also social and developmental maturity, says Janine Bacquie, director of Early Childhood Programs and Services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

“We look for things like how they interact with other children, their eagerness to learn, personal social skills, ability to tend [to] tasks,” Ms. Bacquie says.

Among academic skills the school system checks are pre-literacy and pre-mathematical skills, meaning how well the child recognizes letters and numbers and in what context he or she is able to use them, she says.

If a child with a late birthday doesn’t “make the cut” to start kindergarten after being evaluated, there are other options, Mr. Grafwallner says.

“A parent could consider a private or church-affiliated school option for kindergarten and then transfer to public school in first grade,” he says.

That transfer would be subject to an evaluation of the student’s social, emotional and academic maturity, Mr. Grafwallner says.

Parents who have children with late birthdays are concerned about getting them into kindergarten or first grade for different reasons, Ms. Bacquie says.

Some of them say they can’t afford child care, so they want to put their children in publicly funded kindergarten, she says.

“It’s certainly understandable. … But we need to make sure decisions are made based on what research says that children need,” Ms. Bacquie says.

Other parents are concerned that their children with late birthdays will become unmotivated if they don’t start kindergarten the year they turn 5 years old.

“They are afraid [the children] will regress, but there is no research that supports that,” she says.

Francine Favretto, director of the Center for Young Children in College Park, which has a kindergarten program, says she frequently talks to parents who are convinced that their children are ready to start school even if they are too young.

“Sometimes children look ready academically but not socially and emotionally,” says Mrs. Favretto, who holds a doctorate in human development from the University of Maryland. “When you talk to parents about these issues after evaluating the child, they understand. Ultimately, they want what’s best for their children.”

Sometimes, Mrs. Favretto presents the following analogy to make the case clear to parents.

“Each child has a timetable. When they’re ready, they’re ready. It’s like a baby learning to sit up. The parent can prop pillows around it, encouraging it to sit, but the baby won’t sit up by itself until it’s ready.”

Parent is first teacher

A year at home does not have to mean an education-free year. Parents can help make the transition to kindergarten very smooth by creating an education environment at home.

“There are so many things that parents can do. I recommend that they read a variety of stories every day, make shopping lists with the child, visit the library,” Ms. Goresky says.

When it comes to math skills, she recommends that parents talk about relational terms, such as what’s bigger, what’s taller, what’s rounder.

Ms. Goresky also says using a calendar can be a good way to learn math skills. It gives an opportunity to count the days of the week and the month.

To encourage critical thinking, she recommends that parents ask questions such as: “How do you know that?” “Why do you think so?” and “What if … ?”

It also is important to encourage emotional and social maturity, Ms. Goresky says. Ways to encourage emotional development include giving the child reassurance that making mistakes is part of learning and showing the youngster affection each day.

Ways to promote social skills include encouraging independence, such as asking the child to dress and use the bathroom by himself or herself and providing play situations that encourage sharing toys and taking turns.

For parents who want help with creating an educational environment at home, Ms. Goresky recommends “Success in Kindergarten: Parent Strategies,” a free booklet available at Fairfax County Public Schools’ administrative office in Fairfax.

Montgomery County Public Schools provides similar materials, Ms. Bacquie says.

“We’re happy to give tips to parents about how they can support their children. They are the first teachers,” she says.

Not all parents — particularly those in low-income families — are able to provide an educational environment for their children, Ms. Stipek says.

“We need to provide greater access to quality preschool at a lower age,” she says. “The more time you have kids out of school, the bigger the achievement gap between low-income and middle-class kids will become.”

Ms. Stipek says that instead of asking children to be mature enough for school, society should make sure school is ready to meet the needs of all children.

While Miss Herbers is still among the youngest in her college freshman class, she and her mother long ago put the worries about emotional, social and academic maturity behind them.

The timing of her birthday, however, still matters. It falls on Nov. 2, Election Day.

“I am really excited about being able to vote,” the teen says. “If my birthday had been just one day later, I wouldn’t be able to vote.”

Building skills

The following are at-home activities to encourage kindergarten-readiness skills:

• Create opportunities for sharing in a non-threatening, pressure-free environment.

• Structure play activities by providing materials and social situations that encourage play. Through play, children learn concepts, how to interact with peers, and how to make choices; they also practice using their large and small muscle groups.

• Encourage conversation. Children learn about language and self-expression when they engage in verbal exchanges with others.

• Read aloud regularly to your children, which is a good predictor of early reading skills and an appreciation of reading.

• Provide concrete learning experiences for children. Take them with you to such places as the grocery store and library and then talk with them about what they’re seeing, hearing and touching. This exposes them to learning.

• Provide opportunities for children to practice independence. Allow them to make some choices and try out things. Encourage problem-solving.

Source: National PTA

More info:

Books —

• “Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom, Ages 4-14 — A Resource for Parents and Teachers,” by Chip Wood, Northeast Foundation for Children, 1998. This book provides a guide for anyone working or living with children ages 4-14. It features charts that summarize growth patterns (physical, social, language and cognitive), suggestions on curricular areas and favorite books for different ages.

• “Successful Kindergarten Transition: Your Guide to Connecting Children, Families & Schools,” by Robert C. Pianta and Marcia Kraft-Sayre, Brookes Publishing Co., 2003. This book aims to help parents make their child’s transition to kindergarten an easy one. It shows them how to create transition activities that can be tailored to each child’s needs and how to anticipate barriers and conduct ongoing assessment and evaluation.

• “Ready for Kindergarten,” by Sharon Wilkins, Zondervan Publishing Co., 2000. This book features 156 activities designed to give boys and girls a head start in such core subjects as math, reading, science, art and music.

School systems —

The following school systems provide information about kindergarten and enrollment. The laws that apply to Fairfax County schools are statewide, as are those that apply in Montgomery County schools.

• Fairfax County Public Schools, 10700 Page Ave., Fairfax, VA 22030. Phone: 703/246-2991. Web site: www.fcps.k12.va.us.

• Montgomery County Public Schools, 850 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, MD 20850. Phone: 301/309-6277. Web site: www.mcps.k12.md.us.

• District of Columbia Public Schools, 825 North Capitol St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Phone: 202/724-4222. Web site: www.k12.dc.us.

Online —

• The National PTA Web site (www.pta.org) has several articles on school readiness. The articles cover areas such as emotional and social maturity as well as the desire to learn. The site also has information on what parents can do to help their children get ready for kindergarten, such as promoting independence.

• The American Academy of Pediatrics Web site (www.aap.org) has links to articles on school readiness.

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