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Kindergarten: Small child, big decision

July 21, 2008
photo - Duncan Hollis, 6, looked for tadpoles with his twin brothers, Jonah, left, and Aidan, 11. Duncan’s mother, Amy, decided to keep her sons out of kindergarten until they turned 6. Photo by (KIRK SPEER, THE GAZETTE)
Duncan Hollis, 6, looked for tadpoles with his twin brothers, Jonah, left, and Aidan, 11. Duncan’s mother, Amy, decided to keep her sons out of kindergarten until they turned 6. Photo by (KIRK SPEER, THE GAZETTE) 

Deciding when to send a child to kindergarten can be difficult for parents. Should a gifted child start at age 4 so she doesn't get bored? Should a less precocious child wait until he's 6 so he doesn't fall behind his classmates?

There's no clear-cut answer.

Typically, children in Colorado must be 5 years old by Oct. 1 to enter kindergarten that school year, although the cut-off date can differ among schools and districts.

A recent state law change, however, allows 4-year-olds deemed gifted to enter kindergarten early.

On the other hand, some parents are "redshirting" their students - keeping them at home or in preschool an extra year to make sure they are ready to sit still, hold a pencil and be successful in school.

As a result, a kindergarten teacher might end up with a classroom of kids who are 4, 5 and 6 - a small difference numerically, but not so, perhaps, when it comes to social and physical skills and attention spans.

The stakes are high: Wait too long, and a gifted child could become frustrated; start too early, the child could struggle and develop a negative attitude toward school that lasts for years.

Ultimately, education experts say, parents are the best ones to make the kindergarten decision, but they have many factors to consider.

An early start?

The next generation of neurosurgeons and rocket scientists should have the chance to get started early if they're ready, said one state lawmaker. A new law sponsored by Cherylin Peniston, a retired teacher from Adams County, gives some 4-year-olds that chance.

"Not to put them with what really are their peers ... really puts them behind. It takes away a lot of their enthusiasm," said Peniston, whose interest in gifted education stems from working with Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, a group that believes there's a need to give early access to gifted students.

Still to be decided is what tests will be used to determine if a 4-year-old is gifted enough for kindergarten, and who will pay for the testing. The State Board of Education is working on the rules and regulations for implementing the law and should have something to vote on in August, but Peniston estimates only 60 to 80 children statewide would meet the criteria to start kindergarten early.

The decision on whether to accept 4-year-olds will remain with each school district, Peniston said. But if officials do accept the younger students, the law allows them to receive state money.

Gifted children can benefit from an early start in school, said Catherine Kelly, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, but it needs to be the right start as well.

"They need to be in a setting that's academically challenging," she said

And, she said, there are more considerations than academics. A young child might understand, for example, that 2 plus 2 is 4, Kelly said. But if the teacher requires that the numbers be written in a straight column, the task can be difficult physically for the child, which could make them frustrated.

There are also social and emotional considerations, Kelly said, including how children interact with others. Is the 4 year old willing to share? Can he balance kindness with not allowing himself to be bullied? If he's smaller than the older kids in the class, will that become an issue?

And think beyond kindergarten, she said, to how a student might stack up at other milestones, such as driver's license time or the first middle school dance.

So, older?

Amy Hollis didn't hesitate to keep her son Duncan home for an extra year before deciding to have him start kindergarten this fall at age 6.

"I'm more interested in him getting fresh air and sunshine than reading right away," said the mother of three boys, who solicited advice from doctors, teachers and other parents. "Everyone I knew who had male children said it would be better for them socially to wait."

She is part of a small but growing number of parents who elect to redshirt their children - holding them out of kindergarten until they're 6. It's a trend that has been referred to as "the graying of kindergarten" or "the kindergarten arms race."

Yet no expert can say whether redshirting is the right way to go, especially since research has produced conflicting results. Redshirted kids don't test significantly better; sometimes they thrive and sometimes they feel social stigma as if they had been held back.

"There's a school of thought that if their social and emotional development is not where it needs to be, it can be a problem," said Noreen Landis-Tyson, president of Community Partnership for Child Development, which administers Head Start. "There's another school of thought that says you're going to discourage the kiddo if you don't (challenge them). There's pros and cons on both sides."

For Hollis, deciding to redshirt Duncan was easy. She had done the same thing with her 11-year-old twin boys, and they've done well in school.

It helped that her boys attend The Classical Academy, a charter school in Academy School District 20. The Classical Academy calls redshirting "the gift of time" and requires parents with kids born after June 1 of the upcoming school year to talk to school officials before starting them in kindergarten at age 5. The result: 25 percent of the school's kindergarten students this fall will be 6 by the end of August. Compare that with Ute Pass Elementary School in Manitou Springs School District 14, where the principal reports that only one kindergarten student was 6 when school started last year.

Having such a high number of older kindergartners under one roof makes it easier for them socially and emotionally. If a child is the only 6-yearold in class, it can be pretty awkward at his birthday party when he turns 7. But if he's surrounded by several 6-yearolds, it erases one of the main downsides of redshirting.

Jim Kretchman - another redshirting proponent and co-founder of Preschool Partners, which Duncan attended - said that besides the obvious academic considerations tied to a later start, parents of boys need to consider whether they want their child to be one of the biggest and strongest kids in class or one of the smallest and weakest. A boy's age can affect everything from bullying in younger years to making the high school basketball team, he said. And parents of girls need to consider whether their kids will enter the socially pressurepacked junior high years as a leader or a follower.

Some parents might cry foul at that type of advice. Aren't parents who redshirt just trying to give their kids an unfair advantage?

"What makes it unfair?" Kretchman countered. "As cruel as it sounds, you need to make sure someone else's kid is in that bottom 10 percent. Your job isn't to save that other kid. Your job is to save your kid. ... This is all about increasing the likelihood of success."

Confused yet?

Even at a place with clear policies like The Classical Academy, the rules on the right time to start school aren't written in stone. The school's dean of instructional philosophy, Leesa Waliszewski, started homeschooling her two children at age 4 and maintained that track as she switched them to public school classrooms, where they were among the youngest kids in their grade level.

"I recognized they were ready and eager and it would have been wrong to delay them," Waliszewski said. "But I see other kids who need that time. I'm a strong believer in our general philosophy, yet I've seen with my own kids that there are exceptions to that rule."

So, why make parents of kids with summer birthdays come in and get clearance to send their kids to kindergarten at The Classical Academy?

"We want to make sure they're making that decision for the right reasons," she said, "and assure them there's no problem waiting."

The right reasons are because the child is ready, not because it's the most convenient choice for the parent, or because the child has a certain birthday. The school created this policy, she said, because its kindergarten teachers found that the younger kids were the most likely to struggle or even be held back in kindergarten.

Several educators also point out that today's kindergarten isn't the experience that parents remember from their childhood. Play stations and nap time have been replaced by desks and pencils, and relaxed fun has given way to demanding curriculum and high expectations.

"The problem is that kindergarten is what first and the early part of second grade used to be," said Kathy Stevens, coauthor of "The Minds of Boys" and executive director of the Colorado Springs-based educator training center Gurian Institute. "Developmentally, that's not where kids are, and what you end up doing is making them hate school."

Hollis said that early pressure played a part in her decision: "I don't agree with the academic push going on in preschool, making them read at 3," she said. "I want an environment where he can be a little boy and run and learn and have fun."

The National Association for the Education of Young Children agrees that kindergarten is too young for a purely academic approach, but, then again, there's no slam-dunk proof for the effectiveness of redshirting as a response.

"I'm telling you, there is so much out there in the research and literature about when to (enter kindergarten), and it's not all consistent," said Deb Yagmin, principal of Ute Pass Elementary. "Kids are not consistent. They're not little machines; they're little people."


CONTACT THE WRITERS: 636-0226 or ; 636-0394 or

Here are several factors to consider whether your child is ready for kindergarten:

• Birth date. When does your child's birthday fall? Will he or she be one of the youngest or one of the oldest in class?

• Gender. Boy or girl? Boys are redshirted more often than girls because girls tend to be ready earlier - but not always.

• Size. Is your child big or little for his or her age? Do you think athletics or bullying could be a problem?

• Patience. Is your child ready to sit still in a desk?

• Literacy. Is your child ready to read and write? Consider not only concentration and focus, but the fine motor skill of holding a pencil.

• Social skills. How mature is your child in terms of social and emotional development? Can they comfortably carry on a conversation with an adult, understand rules, share with other kids and balance kindness with forcefulness?

• School environment. What percentage of kids at your school enter kindergarten at age 6 or age 4? Would your kid be the only one?

• Stimulation. Can you offer your child a stimulating environment if he/she does stay home an extra year? Educators say you should read to them, talk with them, take them on trips to the zoo, to museums, to farms or garden centers or nature walks. Consider how you can enrich their brains every day with new experiences. If that's not possible, perhaps school is a better place for them.

• Milestones: Can your child write his or her name, recite his or her address, sit for long periods and communicate well with friends?



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