As we head back to school after Pesach break, many of us are busy thinking about the coming school year. Sure, there’s still almost two months of school to go, but let’s face it: the children are thinking about summer camp, the teachers are thinking about summer break, and the administrators, well, we’re trying to stay focused on finishing up this year while also preparing for the start of the next year. A large part of this prep is the conversations we have with parents. There are the typical “who are the teachers going to be” or “who will be in my child’s class” questions, but there’s one that while it’s not the most prevalent conversation I have, it certainly comes up at least once or twice every year. The question: “How do I know my child is ready for first grade?”
Every so often we find that a child is not quite ready for first grade, and therefore make the decision to give the child another year in kindergarten. Several factors are considered when making that decision, among them being the child’s birthdate, maturity level and temperament. A child’s birthdate can be the easiest or the hardest factor in making the decision. For some reason that I can’t yet figure out, Common Core has attempted to standardize what children across the country learn in every area in each grade, but so far they have not standardized the cut-off date to enter kindergarten. The majority of states require a child to turn 5 by September 1 of their kindergarten year. A few, like Tennessee and Kansas, have August cut-off dates. In New Jersey the cut-off is anywhere from September 30 to October 15, depending on the district. New York City has the latest school birthday cut-off in the country: December 31. Imagine, there are children who can be 4 years old for the first half of kindergarten, which also means they will be 5 for the first half of first grade.
Think about that for a minute. In our area, a child who is 5 turning 6 can be sitting in the same classroom, doing the same tasks as a child who is already a full 6 turning 7. In New York, that scenario could play out for the first half of first grade. Compare that to Europe and Asia where children start first grade at age 6 or even 7. Or Finland, considered to have one of the top educational systems in the world, where children start school at age 7.
There is an abundance of research and articles on the state of learning and education, and the shifting landscape of what children need to be able to do in order to be “successful” in elementary school has certainly been a contributing factor to the discussion. Even among educators this is a hot topic and one that brings up very strong emotions and opinions. Pairing the young age for first grade with increased academic expectations and potentially reduced time for play and social development is often considered the perfect storm for attention, OT and sensory issues to pop up. That is not to say that starting school young causes learning, attention and behavior issues, but we can not discount the toll these expectations may take and how it impacts reading and school readiness.
Are behavior issues a manifestation of frustration that builds because a child is expected to do something he or she may not be developmentally or maturationally ready to do? Is a child reading and demonstrating basic math fact fluency but struggling on the playground? What if a child’s social skills are well developed, but not his or her academic-readiness skills? Are the teachers worried about getting their students to a specific reading level before first grade, even though they know certain children are just not quite there yet? In a world that is going at an ever faster, ever more competitive pace, would the gift of just a bit more time alleviate some of the struggle and frustration?
Think back, if you can, to when you were in kindergarten. Do you remember what a typical school day was like? If you were in kindergarten before 1998 when the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed, likely your school day was filled with play and exploration, centers and songs and rest time and socialization. There were projects for the seasons, the holidays and everything in between. Most likely there was academic time as well: identifying coins and counting to 100, learning the alphabet and how to rhyme and science experiments. There may have even been reading groups, but once upon a time reading was not an expectation of kindergarten. If it happened, fine. If not, well, that’s what first grade was for. Kindergarten was for readiness skills; it was the year when children developed and solidified skills they would need for the academic load that would start in first grade. It was a year where language and communication skills were developing, and where important activities like holding a scissors and cutting along the lines, hopping, skipping and jumping, pencil grip and letter formation, hand-eye coordination and conflict resolution were the skills on which a child was predominantly evaluated. Of course, we focus on those skills today and there is still plenty of play and exploration, centers and songs. However, as greater emphasis is put on academic skills, the more truth there seems to be to the phrase “kindergarten is the new first grade.”
Every school has some form of a skills checklist. There are academic, social, behavioral and emotional benchmarks we expect children to meet as they grow and develop. Recently, I came across a blog post that included a first grade readiness checklist from 1979. It was fascinating. Among the questions were the following (and pay close attention to the first question):
- Will your child be six years, six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?
- Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
- Can you child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
- Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
- Can he tell left hand from right?
- Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
- Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?
What do you think about these questions? Are we pushing and expecting too much of children today or, once upon a time did we underestimate children and therefore not push them enough? Hopefully, even if we disagree on our answer to this question, we can agree that while there are certain academic skills that are absolutely a necessary part of every early childhood education and we must have standards by which we determine school readiness, we should also remain mindful of the developmental appropriateness of what children are being asked to do. In this way we can ensure that we are providing children with the tools they need to be successful.
By Stacy Katzwer
Stacy Katzwer is the elementary school principal at Tenafly Chabad Academy. Mrs. Katzwer has been in the field of education, both in the classroom and as an administrator, for over 20 years. Mrs. Katzwer has extensive experience and training in working with children with learning challenges, has presented at professional development workshops and been involved in teacher training and mentoring of new teachers. She can be reached at [email protected]