If you’re on the fence about when your child should start kindergarten, you’re not alone. Each year, parents across the United States are faced with determining school readiness for their 5-year-old — the minimum age most states set for school eligibility.
And while some states require school attendance at age 5, many others have compulsory school attendance laws that begin at age 6 or later, which leaves parents looking for guidance about sending their child to school.
Most kids start kindergarten at 5 years old, although they may begin as early as 4 or as late as 7. Whether they’re eligible to start generally requires turning 5 years old before a specific date — usually in August or September.
It’s likely your state offers kindergarten, but not all states require children to attend. As of September 2020, there are only 19 states plus the District of Columbia that require children to attend kindergarten based on state statutes or regulations, according to the Education Commission of the States.
For parents in the other states, the decision to send their child to kindergarten depends on personal beliefs as well as the compulsory school attendance laws in their area.
According to data from 2018, in some states, school is compulsory beginning at age 5. But compulsory schooling doesn’t begin until age 8 in others.
For example, Arkansas, Hawaii, and Maryland require kids to start school at age 5. Colorado, Florida, and Georgia set the age at 6 (Pennsylvania recently changed their age to 6 as well). And Washington doesn’t require kids to attend school until age 8.
The differences in rules as well as the developmental range of individual children can leave many parents wondering what factors affect the age kids should start kindergarten.
Several factors affect a child’s readiness to start kindergarten, including emotional, social, physical, developmental, home environments, preschool experience, and reading skills.
According to Cheryl Broadnax, senior director of district improvement at StriveTogether, some of the key factors that families consider when making this decision include:
- Cost of child care. Many families face financial challenges with this and thus elect to enroll their children in free kindergarten as soon as possible to alleviate financial concerns.
- Maturity. Is the child able to do self-care things like buttoning, zipping, and other skills needed to use the restroom independently? Is the child ready to be away from home and engage in instructional activities within a classroom?
- Academics. Some kids have outgrown being home or in settings that focus on socialization. They need to be stimulated and expand learning.
- Individual development. Preexisting conditions that delay physical, emotional or mental development may also factor into the decision to wait longer, although some may opt to enroll earlier for more access to early intervention programs.
When it comes to signs that your child is ready for kindergarten, Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning specialist at Ivy Prep Learning Center, says to consider the following abilities and skills.
Does your child have:
- the ability to sit in one place and take turns
- strong language skills
- an interest in books, sounds, and words
- the maturity to engage with other children
- the skills to manage their frustration
- the body and postural strength to sit in a chair for extended periods of time
- the ability to both get started on their own and to adapt to the demands of a group
- the ability to hold a pencil and do beginning drawings
- frustration tolerance
- the ability to respond to structure and redirection “on-demand” with some cueing toward transitions?
Additionally, Broadnax says there are several key academic indicators that a child is ready for kindergarten. These include:
- Writing. The child is beginning to write letters of the alphabet and write their name.
- Letter and sound recognition. The child can name letters of the alphabet and give sounds. They can even name a word that starts with that letter.
- Numbers. The child can count to 10 or 20 and be able to visually recognize and name numbers.
- Colors and shapes. The child has a basic recognition and understanding of colors and shapes.
- Reading. The child knows how to hold a book, understands that words go left to right, and can recognize rhyming words.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that not all children will have the same preparation for kindergarten. If your child doesn’t already have the skills listed above when it’s time to enter kindergarten their teachers will work with them (and you) to help them to learn.
Some families choose to “redshirt” their child. Though this term was typically associated with a college athlete sitting out a year to develop both physically and mentally, redshirting is now part of a decision matrix for kindergarten readiness.
Mannis says by waiting a year, or by enrolling a child in a program with a tactical birthdate cutoff, parents ensure that their children will be among the older students in the grade.
“This has been useful, in particular for some boys, where they then have time to develop their focus, as well as other developmental goals such as holding a pencil and starting to write in invented spelling,” she says.
For some students and families, Mannis says redshirting reduces frustration because the older children may be stronger, more socially mature, and better able to handle the attentional and other neurological expectations of formal academics.
Many experts, including those from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that delaying school entry can prevent children from being in the best learning environment.
In fact, early intervention programs available through the public school program can offer support that can improve educational outcomes.
Although this practice is happening in public and private schools, most parents are enrolling their child in kindergarten on schedule or when they are eligible, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics.
When children have the emotional, physical, and cognitive skills in place, Mannis says they’re more likely to absorb and participate with success and enthusiasm.
But when they don’t have the requisite underpinnings, Mannis says there is a mismatch between where the child is and the expectations of the school.
“Some kindergarten programs remain more a continuation of early childhood ones, which are more play and exploration-based, while other kindergartens mark the start of formal education,” Mannis explains.
So it’s critical that parents understand the culture and approach of the school they’re considering as they ask themselves, “Is my child ready?”
Nowadays, Mannis says, we know so much more about how kids grow, learn, and thrive. “The more parents think about their child’s temperament, learning profile, and context of the school and community, the more they can make well-considered decisions for their children,” she says.
For example, if a child is slower to warm up in temperament and doesn’t have well-developed language skills, Mannis says it may be challenging for them to adapt to a structured, pre-academic kindergarten.
“Rather than a structured kindergarten class that comes with an expectation that they will develop phonics skills and manage workbooks, they may need more floor time and open-ended art projects,” Mannis says.
Starting on the right foot helps kids begin schooling feeling more confident and having success. Broadnax says this can have long-term effects with students feeling good about school, which means more engagement, more progress, and less likelihood of dropping out or disengaging over time.
“Being ready helps students have lower stress, frustration, and anxiety while at school. And coming ready gives a strong foundation schools and teachers can build upon,” Broadnax says.
Whether to enroll your child in kindergarten earlier or later depends on a variety of factors. If you live in a state that requires school attendance at age 5, you’ll need to send your child to school or declare that you’re homeschooling.
But if you live in a state that doesn’t require school attendance until age 6 or older, the decision comes down to school readiness.
If you have questions about your child’s ability or readiness to start kindergarten, consider talking with the local school district’s learning specialist or elementary education director.