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Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Susan Byrnes / Times editorial columnist
The misguided trend of delaying kindergarten


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When my dad was in elementary school in New York City in the 1940s, he skipped second grade. Consequently, he was always the youngest in his class and started college when he was just 16.

In those days, we pushed kids ahead to give them an edge. These days, there's an opposite trend. Some parents are postponing kindergarten for a year in the belief their children — usually boys — will be better prepared and do better academically and socially throughout school. Some parents even wait a year so their sons will be bigger than their peers and more likely to excel in sports.

On an individual level, it's not really a big deal. Parents believe they are acting in the best interests of their children. Many make the decision carefully and remain convinced years later their choice was the right one.

But for the larger society, the aging of kindergarten is troubling.

It used to be that parents started their children in school as soon as they were eligible. The majority still do. Yet today, about 10 percent of American parents delay kindergarten enrollment. White, affluent boys are more likely than their African-American or low-income peers to start kindergarten a year late.

The shift, combined with the move by some states toward earlier cutoff dates for eligibility, is changing the makeup of kindergarten.

Unfortunately, the research doesn't exactly match parents' expectations. Studies show that any academic advantage gained by starting kindergarten late is erased by third grade. Other studies suggest good intentions can backfire. Sometimes students who are old for their grades become bored, misbehave and even drop out in later years.

There are other problems with the trend. Shifting the age upwards tends to make kindergarten more academic. That's ironic because one of the reasons parents give for holding children back is that kindergarten is too advanced for them.

For decades, educators have generally agreed it makes sense for kids to start school at about 5. Obviously, birthdays and state cut-off dates mean ages will span about a year.

By allowing some parents to boost the average age of kindergarteners, we have widened the age span to a year and a half or even more. This is a significant policy shift worthy of discussion and debate.

I'm not talking about holding back students with identified special needs. I'm talking about a small percentage of advantaged students who start school later than their peers. Even if it gives kids only a temporary leg up, it's unsettling. Wealthy parents can afford child care or private preschool if they keep their children back a year. Low-income families don't have the same options.

If kindergarten is no longer appropriate for 5-year-olds, we should say so and change it. But I don't believe that's the case.

Some of the pressure has to do with the focus on testing. Despite evidence to the contrary, some parents probably believe children will have a better chance of passing high-stakes exams and performing better on other standardized tests later if they are a bit older.

Other parents aren't thinking that far ahead. I've heard of parents postponing kindergarten because they think their children are not quite ready to sit still or follow directions. Some have birthdays close to the cutoff. Others just want their children to have more time to "be kids" before buckling down.

Is kindergarten really such a pressure cooker? Kindergarteners still finger-paint, make Play-Doh animals and gather for circle time. Learning social skills remains an important focus.

It's true some children are not as mature at age 5 as their peers. Everyone develops at a different rate. But that has always been the case. The best way to gain the skills necessary for kindergarten is by going to kindergarten.

A skilled kindergarten teacher knows how to encourage and nurture different kinds of learners. Yet, when we widen the age gap in a setting that was not intended to serve such a wide range, we make it more challenging for teachers, especially in big public-school classrooms.

It's understandable that parents want to give their children the best opportunities and protect them from undue stress. But shouldn't we also teach our kids that it's OK not to always be the biggest, smartest kid in class?

Susan Byrnes writes Fridays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at sbyrnes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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