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Gone are the days when mastering the art of finger painting launched you to the head of the kindergarten class. Kindergarten classrooms are becoming increasingly academic in their focus including subjects such as math, science, reading, writing and even social studies. Full-day programs, which are becoming more the norm than the exception, bring with them not only longer days but more responsibility. And while reports show that trends in modern-day kindergarten provide many benefits, both academic and social, they are also leaving many parents, particularly those of children with summer birthdays, in a state of confusion as to whether their child is ready.
What determines kindergarten readiness?
Opinions vary, but the growing consensus has the importance of social and emotional development taking center stage. In the words of Debra Ballard, director of Day Nursery Start Smart 4 Children at Ft. Harrison, "With young children their successful development depends on development of the whole child; this means social and emotional growth and development, physical growth and development as well as their cognitive knowledge."
Sarah Harrison, a director of admissions at the International School, which enrolls students representing 45 nationalities, admits there is a huge bell curve of knowledge displayed by children entering kindergarten.
"You will have children who barely know their alphabet and children who are already reading," she said. Harrison contends, however, that what is not so readily taught is developmental readiness. An interest in learning, an ability to express feelings and interact well with other children – these skills are also essential to kindergarten success.
Attention span is another key readiness factor. Angie Luallin, education director of The Goddard School Carmel III and former kindergarten teacher, said one thing she looks for is a child's ability to sit still when needed. Luallin clarifies that does not mean sitting still for long stretches of time, rather 10 to 20 minutes at a time should suffice.
Francine Clayton, head of Early Childhood at Sycamore School, where the mission is to meet the needs of academically gifted children, also stressed the importance of attention span and added that a child should be able to follow 2 or 3 directions and then work independently to complete a task.
Furthermore, Clayton calls attention to more basic readiness skills including the ability to handle restroom needs independently, exert self-control when working with other students, and separate easily from parents.
For parents who don't know where to begin in evaluating their child's readiness, Dana Jones, early childhood specialist with the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), recommends reviewing the Five Domains of School Readiness, which was created by the IDOE.
Jones pointed out, "This is not a checklist of skills, but rather suggestions of things to consider for your own assessment of your child's readiness to attend kindergarten." These domains can be viewed on the IDOE Web site at http://www.doe.in.gov/primetime/docs/SchoolReadiness.pdf
Also helpful are The Foundations to the Indiana Academic Standards for Young Children. According to Sarah Parks, director at Day Nursery Federal Center, teachers at her center use these foundations set forth by the IDOE as a guide to plan activities to develop skills that will help them lay the foundation for the accomplishment of the Indiana Academic Standards once in school.
These foundations can be also be viewed at the IDOE Web site at http://www.doe.in.gov/primetime/docs/foundations/indiana_foundations.pdf
In the end who decides?
The IDOE has set the age cut-off at age 5 by Aug. 1; however, this date can vary by school district and from school to school in the case of private schools. Furthermore, all public schools are required to have an early entrance appeal process in place.
Outside of meeting the age requirement, the choice of when to send your child to kindergarten is yours. But that does not mean you have to go at it alone. If your child is currently in preschool, talk to their teacher to evaluate classroom behavior and academic progress and access how these will translate to the kindergarten classroom. Your pediatrician can also advise you on whether your child's small and large motor skills are developing on track.
Jennifer Williams, a kindergarten teacher at the Sycamore School, suggests visiting the school your child will be attending. "Observe and see what their expectations are and then think about whether your child will be able to meet these expectations," she said.
The right choice is the one that is right for your child. Mary Kokosa and Dawn Voegele, both mothers of children with August birthdays who were looking to the same parochial school for their children's education made opposite decisions with equally successful outcomes.
Kokosa, whose son missed the schools firm Aug. 1 age cut-off by a matter of weeks, decided to switch schools in order to be able to send her son to kindergarten as planned. She consulted her son's preschool teacher who agreed her son's needs would be best met in a kindergarten program.
According to Kokosa, "I got tired of hearing about that extra year is a gift you give your child, because it is only a gift if they need it. A gift is worthless if it is unnecessary." Now more than halfway into the kindergarten year, Kokosa could not be happier with her decision.
Voegele, whose daughter also narrowly missed the cut-off, decided to adhere to the school's guidelines. Her reasoning had more to do with socialization and maturation, and being the oldest rather than the youngest in the class.
According to Voegele, "Academically she could have gone and kept up with the class." Instead, she enrolled her daughter in the Pre-K program at her current preschool. Voegele asserts that even though her daughter is the oldest in the class, she loves the class and always seems happy after school.
"Socially, she is more outgoing this year than last year and that was another reason I wanted her to wait another year," she said.
Voegele is confident that in her daughter's case, her decision was the right one.
What can you do to help your child get ready?
There is no need to break out the flashcards and grill your future kindergartener on their multiplication tables. Brenda Klingerman, elementary principal at Heritage Christian School said there are many ways that parents can intentionally help prepare their child for kindergarten.
Klingerman offers examples like giving your child consistent responsibilities at home such as helping set the table; playing age appropriate board games to teach the concept of winning and losing with the right attitude; playing simple games like Simon Says to give practice following directions; encouraging fine motor skills through playing with play dough, cutting with scissors or finger painting; and of course reading aloud to your child frequently.
Melissa Jackson, speech-language pathologist with The Orchard School, who stresses language development as the basis for thinking and learning, encourages parents to think of themselves as the narrators for what is happening around their child.
"Parents should talk with their children during daily activities. For example, while parents are cooking they can involve their child and focus on naming the ingredients, describing their color and texture, and talking about the steps of a recipe," she said. "In this fast-paced, technology-filled world, I think parents need to know that the things their children really need to be prepared for school are pretty simple."
Yes, kindergarten has changed. But teaching methods have also evolved to meet the growing academic content of kindergarten while keeping learning age appropriate.
At St. Richard's Episcopal School, where global readiness is stressed, kindergarteners take part in an Around the World Unit, which begins with packing a suitcase, creating passports and then participating in a thoughtfully designed curriculum in which the students visit various continents.
So rest easy, seek guidance from friends and teachers, and in the end trust your gut instincts in regards to what your child can handle. And then…get ready for kindergarten!