Of all the parenting decisions made by caring moms and dads, deciding when a child starts school may have one of the greatest impacts. Once your child identifies with a peer group, it can be difficult to hold them back or have them skip a grade.
This early childhood decision can determine many ways your child will see themself in relation to others. Will they be the youngest in the grade or the oldest? How will they compare academically? Will they be the most or the least physically mature? Even when a teen gets their driver’s license in relation to their friends is partially determined by when they begin school.
There are many important factors to consider when choosing the year your child begins kindergarten. This article will only focus on the emotional and psychological factors. Yet academic skills and level of cognitive development are also important to keep in mind. An educational psychologist may be helpful in assessing if your child is ahead or behind their age level.
From four to six years of age, children may vary greatly in many areas of emotional and psychological development. The following are a list of questions I encourage parents to consider as they contemplate the important decision of beginning their child’s academic career.
Can your child access ways to self-soothe?
Children learn how to calm themselves at varying ages. Kindergarten teachers and aides are generally compassionate and attend to an upset child. Yet they will have a classroom full of children to attend to. Your child may have less comforting than they have had at home or in day care.
Watch for indications that your child can do things to make themselves feel better when they are upset. Self-soothing actions could include holding a favorite toy, asking to be held, drawing or coloring, etc. If your child has few or no coping skills to self-soothe, they may not be ready for a classroom environment.
Can your child wait?
Closely related to self-soothing is the ability to wait one’s turn. In a classroom setting, a child will be expected to:
- Raise their hand and wait to be called on
- Stand in a line before going outside
- Ask permission to use the restroom
- Wait while someone else is talking.
If your child has difficulty waiting, they may experience challenges in a classroom. Of course, part of early childhood education is helping children develop delayed gratification skills. Yet it is often important for a young child to have some of these skills prior to kindergarten.
Can your child take turns?
Very young children (1 to 4) do parallel play, which consists of sitting or standing near other children. However, they are essentially playing alone with their own agenda and their own rules. As children grow, they learn strategies such as “Eenie meenie miny mo” or setting a timer to keep turns fair.
A kindergartener will likely need to share toys, take turns in a game, and interact in back and forth ways. These abilities can be essential for your child to get the most out of a kindergarten experience.
Does your child have a vocabulary for their feelings?
Your child must be able to tell the adult in charge if they feel sad, sleepy, scared, etc. If your child only explains how they feel by telling what happened (i.e., “He won’t play with me,” rather than “I’m sad,” or “I feel left out”), it will be much more difficult for a teacher to assist them with understanding and compassion.
Listen to how your child expresses their emotions. If they only express their feelings as blame, story-telling, defensiveness, or explanations, you may want to try using more feeling words around your child. When you speak about your own feelings, you can use words such as “worried,” “proud,” “frustrated,” “cranky,” etc. You don’t need to focus on explanations and long stories about why you feel a certain way. You only need to use an accurate word to directly describe how you feel.
Can your child sit and follow simple directions?
If your child can sit at the table and eat dinner with the family, they probably can sit at a desk and follow what a teacher asks them to do. If your child can follow your directions to play games or do craft projects, they will likely be able to do the same at school.
Does your child have coping skills for separation anxiety?
The most common complaint I hear from parents of kindergarten-aged children is that their child cries when parents leave them at school. Separation anxiety is normal, especially:
- If there is a sibling at home. Your child may imagine the sibling having you all to themselves while they are stuck at school. Scheduling one-on-one time with the kindergarten child can ensure they also have quality time with each parent.
- If your child has had few opportunities to be apart from their parents. It may help to leave your child with a babysitter or relative to get them used to being separated from parents during school hours. You may try hiding a surprise and letting the child know only the caregiver can tell them where it is after the parent leaves.
- If there are conflicts at home that are already creating some underlying anxiety. If anxiety is a significant issue, family counseling can be helpful.
Can your child tell you about their adventures?
It is important for most parents to feel comfortable that their child can reliably convey what happened while they were apart. Listen to what your child says about visits with grandparents, their time in preschool, or what they did at a play group.
It is not only important that a child can explain to a parent what they were excited about at school, but also relate any indications of bullying or a teacher who may be neglectful. A young child will not be able to give details outlining each minute of their school day, but they should be able to discuss the events that were most important to them.
Lastly, do you believe your child is ready for a school environment?
Pay attention to how your child interacts with peers their age. Look at how they handle conflict or frustration. Be honest with yourself about what you know about your child that may not be readily apparent to teachers.
Trust your intuition. You’ve known your child since birth. You’ve watched them grow through many developmental stages. Use this unique information to help make the important decision about when your child starts school.
If you are still uncertain, you may want to read about the developmental norms for your child’s age. You might consider talking to a child therapist about your concerns.
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