School Readiness


Our son’s birthday IS the cut-off date for Kindergarten. We couldn’t get any closer to him being absolutely the youngest in his class -- IF we decide to start him as a 4-year-old for the first few days of the school year. If there were a parent readiness checklist, we would meet the criteria: tired of paying preschool tuition? Check! Want all three kids at the same school? Check!

But of course we want to do the right thing by our son, and though we have almost certainly decided to go for it, I don’t want to overlook some harbinger of doom in our rush to phase into elementary school for all (for two years of our family’s life).  

“I was surprised, though, to learn that the bottom line is we can kind of ignore the school readiness checklists. ”

Our son is a whiz at memory games, blows us away with his vocabulary, and gravitates toward playing with older kids. Our girls could name all the letters in the alphabet by age 3; when he was 3, he knew the first letter of his name, possibly because it’s the same as Superman’s. Also, he is physically tiny, ranking at the 5th percentile on the growth curve on a good day. So are saving money and streamlining the drop-off and pick-up routine making this decision at the expense of his academic and social success?

I know many parents – it actually feels like most parents – who would opt to wait without hesitation. When the topic comes up, I notice myself explaining defensively or apologetically why we are planning to send him to kindergarten, expecting judgment. I recently read a thread in an online group about this very topic and every single comment praised their decision to wait a year for their September-born sons. This did not help my confidence in our decision.

So what’s a mom to do? Research it of course!

What Is School Readiness?

You would think there would be one checklist to easily reference, but a quick google search will prove you wrong. Not only are there different school readiness checklists based on websites, but different standards and procedures per state (I have lived in 3 different states with widely different cut-off birthdates). So, should my son know ALL of the alphabet or just a few letters? Should he have perfect emotional control or just be able to sit for story time?

I skipped around several child development websites with different variations, and combed through the dense report on school readiness by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I did it so you don’t have to, and here’s what I found:

There are 5 basic categories of readiness:

  • Cognitive skills

    • Sound-letter association

    • Beginning math skills (eg, understanding number concepts)

    • General knowledge

  • Social-Emotional development

    • Taking turns

    • Cooperative

    • Can express emotions

  • Language development

    • Listening and speaking

    • Alphabet awareness

  • Physical health and development

    • General well-being and stable physical health

    • Running, jumping, throwing balls

  • Approaches to learning

    • Curious

I was surprised, though, to learn that the bottom line is we can kind of ignore the school readiness checklists. The AAP argues against kindergarten readiness tests performed across states because they overly focus on specific skills instead of the child as a whole person.

Most kids should be considered “ready” because it’s more about their capacity to learn, not about what they already know. Significant problems with attention or language delays are reasons to put off starting kindergarten, but it would be important to actually address these concerns in the extra year of preschool rather than expecting time on its own to improve “readiness.”

The Science of School Readiness

This idea that readiness should not be the focus has run counter to just about every conversation I have had with other parents. For those of us with kids on the cusp, it feels like we are deciding their futures. It turns out research says we are not even close. In fact, academic advantages seen in 1st graders who started older disappear within a few years. And there is no consistent evidence of BAD outcomes for kids starting younger.

A recent study of Florida students found that August-born children performed worse than September-born children over time, but other research shows that older students (“redshirted”) had worse outcomes than kids starting school younger. There are, in fact, benefits to a combination of older and younger kids in early elementary classrooms. But when we talk about “readiness,” are we even looking at it right?

What has become clear is that schools and communities bear more responsibility for readiness than the individual child. As the AAP states, “Children’s readiness for kindergarten should become an outcome measure for community-based programs, rather than an exclusion criterion at the beginning of the formal educational experience.”

The biggest risks are family factors that are tied to well-known inequities that are risk factors across negative outcomes for kids: poverty, single-parent households, low maternal education. We know these types of families have higher stress and worse access to quality childcare and community resources in general. Those kids tend to be less “ready,” but waiting a year doesn’t solve what research has shown to be the actual factors contributing to lower readiness.

Reading about the research and the official recommendations from the AAP based on many data sources, I had an epiphany that my parent anxiety came from a place of great privilege. We are not in poverty, my children are in good health (with access to good health care if they weren’t), and we have resources aplenty in our family, school, and community. It turns out -- despite my advanced degree and many years working with the very kids who truly are at risk -- this was a manufactured problem in my insulated reality. Of all things parenting, I do not need to worry about this, which my instinct has been telling me, but I questioned it.

The Art of School Readiness

School Readiness takes all shapes and sizes

I love science and data to help make decisions, but I also believe in our parent instinct. We know our kids, our schools, and our communities best. One reason we feel more comfortable with our pint-sized son starting kindergarten is because we trust our school culture of support for kids at all levels. In fact, we think he will blossom in the kindergarten curriculum more than if he stays in preschool. We also know he has two big sisters to help him navigate potential transition landmines.

This is consistent with the AAP calling on schools to not only use “readiness tests” to know the range of levels coming into kindergarten rather than a process of exclusion, but to know how to serve the range of levels in a single kindergarten classroom.

Fortunately, I witnessed the magic of this in my daughter’s kindergarten class last year. As one of the oldest in her class, I had no worries about her skills or readiness. At the beginning of the year, she wrote a few sentences about her first day of school, and I saw other papers hanging on the wall with simply a picture. At the end of the year, as we parents sat watching a slide show (tears streaming), it clearly didn’t matter. They all progressed leaps and bounds, and had a great time along the way. 

Of course in my line of work, I fully support parents’ decisions based on gut instinct that their kids need a little time to start kindergarten, especially due to worries about social maturity or readiness for the classroom structure. At these ages, kids can change and grow tremendously in just a few months. Fortunately, this seems to be a parenting choice that will most likely end up fine for our kids regardless of what we decide. That’s a relief! We can save our worries for all the other parenting decisions.

Update: This same child, officially the youngest in his school last year, is now a first grader with two best buddies and mastery across subjects EVEN IN A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, doing 3 months of kindergarten and 5 months of first grade remotely. I guess we DO know our son best, even if we never stop worrying about him. And he prefers learning about magic over math.


School Readiness Report, American Academy of Pediatrics

Kids Born in August Don’t Perform As Well: Study, Southern Living

Youngest Kid, Smartest Kid? New Yorker

Delay Kindergarten at Your Peril, New York Times

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