The most important school-related decision that some parents make this summer may be whether to send their child to school this year at all.
It's a choice that faces parents of 5-year-olds who meet the age criteria to enter kindergarten, but who may be much younger in terms of their intellectual, social, or emotional development. Other 5-year-olds might be ready for school in all respects, but their parents may choose to delay the kindergarten year in hopes it gives their child an academic or athletic edge later on.
"You're not making a decision for this year only. You are making a decision that is going to impact your child's life forever," declared Beth Wagoner, director of curriculum for Maumee City Schools.
Even if the child can keep up academically, she said, he or she may always struggle with other challenges of the school environment.
Kathryn Hott, assistant superintendent for Springfield Local Schools, agreed. Being on the young end of the grade-level age spectrum isn't necessarily a negative, she said, but the difference in maturity can take on greater significance during the dating years, for example, or when the child goes off to college at barely 18.
"It really is something to think through," Mrs. Hott said.
On the flip side, the child who has been held back for the kindergarten year may be much taller and heavier than the other kids. And, if that child must repeat a grade later on, he or she would be significantly older than classmates.
Sandy Miller, director of the office of early learning and school readiness at the Ohio department of education, maintained that 5-year-olds who lag socially or academically will get exactly the help they need in kindergarten. "That's what school is all about," Ms. Miller said in a telephone interview from Columbus. "Our advice would be to send them."
Backing her up is a report in the September 2003 issue of Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Delaying kindergarten entry often has negative effects, it stated. "Families need to consider that by holding their child out, they may in fact be depriving the child of important opportunities for learning."
Ms. Miller advised parents not to make their decision without talking to people such as the child's preschool teacher, pediatrician, and/or the kindergarten teacher or principal at the school that the child would attend.
If they recommend a delay, Ms. Miller advised, find out why and make sure the child gets the developmental experiences he or she needs in the intervening year.
"What makes a child successful in kindergarten is most often the experiences he has had before kindergarten," she said.
Ohio gives local school districts the option of choosing either Aug. 1 or Sept. 30 as the date by which children must be 5 years old to be admitted to kindergarten. Maumee, for example, has adopted the Aug. 1 entrance date; the Springfield Local and Toledo Public Schools' cutoff is Sept. 30. Michigan law entitles a child who is 5 by Dec. 1 to enroll in kindergarten.
Readiness isn't determined solely by a child's birth date, observed Diane Irving, assistant superintendent of elementary education for TPS. While some parents choose to hold off the start of school, she said a few request their child be tested for early admission to kindergarten - also allowed by Ohio law for children who turn 5 after their district's kindergarten entrance date and before Jan. 1 of that school year.
Mrs. Irving said districts don't have statistics on how many parents decide to delay their child's kindergarten year, because they don't know exactly how many 5-year-olds are eligible for enrollment in any given year in the first place. "We don't know they're out there until they show up on our radar screen," she explained.
However, a study of the kindergarten class of 1998-99, published in May of this year and available online from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences ( Http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006064.pdf), reported that 88 percent of the pupils were "on-time" enrollees, 6 percent were delayed, 2 percent were early admissions, and 5 percent were repeating the grade. (The total tops 100 percent because figures are rounded off.)
Maturity, independence, and communication skills are good indicators of whether a child is ready for kindergarten, Mrs. Irving said. Kids should be able to express basic feelings and needs- such as I'm hungry, I have to go to the bathroom, I feel sick - as well as such information as their name and address, she said.
"A lot of children come in with what you would consider inappropriate behaviors, but with the peer modeling and discipline that kids learn in school, they adapt," Mrs. Irving said.
Academically, children who are behind their peers in some areas also have a chance to grow in kindergarten, Mrs. Irving pointed out. All incoming students are tested so that teachers can assess what needs to be done to address individual needs. A child may have an extensive vocabulary but weak math skills.
It's rare that a child starts kindergarten and then is withdrawn until the following year, she noted. If that does happen, it's usually because of separation anxiety. "We've had children who come in and cry all day, every day. It is futile to try to keep that child in school," she explained.
Mrs. Hott, of the Springfield schools, suggests that if parents are on the fence about their 5-year-old's readiness they should consult their local school district. Educators can quickly evaluate a child's language development, gross and fine motor skills, ability to follow one-step and two-step directions, and knowledge of the alphabet and primary colors, for example.
"Be open to the observations or recommendations of the professionals," advised Craig Haugen, superintendent of the Whiteford Agricultural Schools. He said that although most parents have a good understanding of their child's abilities, he has seen parents who want to push the youngster into school before they're ready, as well as parents who are reluctant to have them start kindergarten, "even though every indication suggests they are ready to."
Springfield parent Cindy Hadsell said she took the advice of school personnel to delay kindergarten for her daughter Lauren, even though initially "I thought it would be good for her to go."
Lauren has an Oct. 1 birthday, just one day after the Sept. 30 cutoff in the Springfield schools. Now 10, the honor roll student will be in fifth grade this year at Holloway Elementary School.
"It truly was the right move for her," Mrs. Hadsell said. "I have no regrets." Academic pressure in kindergarten has increased, she continued. "What these kids do in kindergarten now, my older daughter probably did in first grade. It was a much less intense situation than it is now."
Mrs. Hadsell's experience echoes the thoughts of Mrs. Wagoner, of the Maumee schools.
If in doubt, keep them home another year, she advised.
"In my mind, there is no down side. You're giving the child another year to grow socially and emotionally, to be very prepared for the school environment," Mrs. Wagoner explained. "We stress that a parent is never going to look back and say 'I regret that I gave my child the gift of time.'"
Contact Ann Weber at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.