school bus

When to start kindergarten?

19 August 2010

In retrospect, I should have had all my kids in January. That would have made kindergarten decisions so much easier.

Thirty years ago when I was a kid, skipping grades was all the rage. Newspapers featured articles on the youngest kids to finish college. Being a child prodigy – or having one – was much admired. How times have changed. These days states want to start kids older (better for test scores), and many parents also prefer their kids to be older. In some schools kids still start kindergarten at age four – not uncommon a generation ago – but an increasing number start at age six. Many people will say that it is better for kids’ confidence to be among the oldest in their class, while others want their kids to be larger for better athletic opportunities and less playground bullying. Still others fear that a child that is youngest in his/her class is at risk of being more of a follower than leader socially. Starting early and having to repeat kindergarten also carries a stigma that an extra year of preschool does not.

On the other hand, kids with summer and fall birthdays – especially ones with older siblings – are often ready to start kindergarten on time. Parents can also be anxious for kids to start school. We all feel our kids are brilliant, so it can also be hard to see other kids start kindergarten while ours stay home for another year. Preschool and daycare cost money, while kindergarten is free. And we don’t want our kids to be so bored in school that they become disengaged.

There’s also the issue of start dates that vary state by state and school by school. Most cutoff dates range between September 1 and December 31, but in Indiana, for example, the cutoff date is as early as July 1.

I admit to having a bias for my kids being on the older side. My birthday is in the beginning of the year. I have two brothers – one born in the fall and one in the summer. They started school on time, and while they did great academically, they were out of sync socially. Which is not to say they had bad experiences – it was more like the social experience just passed them by because they were too young to really understand it. We were all late bloomers physically. Even as an older kid in my class, I was one of the smallest until well into high school. That was less of a problem for me, as a girl with no athletic ambition. But my brothers were both young and small, and it was harder socially to be a boy that doesn’t participate in sports.

Contrast with my husband’s family: His dad was young for his class (fall birthday) and a fantastic athlete. He’d always wished he’d started later so that he would have been able to play sports another year. As it turned out, his three sons all had fall birthdays, so he was able to give them the extra year he didn’t have. They all started kindergarten a year late and were also early bloomers physically. These factors aren’t everything – certainly personality and circumstances play a large part – but the fact that all three boys had outstanding school experiences socially and athletically reinforces a bias in the family to hold kids back that has continued in the next generation – my kids and their many cousins.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a featured article on this issue a few years back. I’m always forwarding it to friends grappling with the kindergarten decision:

“When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten?” New York Times Magazine, 3 June 2007

I also love and frequently forward this New York Times piece by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Freakanomics. It’s a fascinating analysis of why World Cup soccer players are much more likely to have birthdays early in the year than late in the year. This article raises the concern about kids being placed in “tracks” in school and the self-reinforcing cycle that comes from higher expectations resulting in higher performance.

“A Star is Made: The Birth-Month Soccer Anolmaly,” New York Times Magazine, 7 May 2006

Two days ago, USA Today had a front page article about younger kids being 60% more likely than older kids to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder:

Youngest in Class get ADHD Label,” USA Today, 17 August 2010

This is a tricky issue. Please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment below – would love to hear from you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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