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Is there a Best Age to Start Kindergarten?

QUESTION: I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son whose birthday falls in early September. He can write letters, spells a handful of words, recognizes letters and words independently and is very bright. I am thinking ahead to kindergarten and wondering whether I should start him at five or six years of age. What kinds of things should I be looking for when making this decision?

ANSWER: Your son is clearly intelligent. No doubt he will do fine academically. The real adjustments that you need to be concerned about is his social readiness for interacting in a group, being separated from you and his ability to take and follow direction in the classroom setting.

Naturally, all of these things may influence each other. Some of his comfort with the adjustment to kindergarten may depend on the teacher's personality style and the manner in which the classroom is run. If he is a boy who enjoys social interaction and tends to follow directions from a preschool teacher, he may easily adapt to this new challenge by age five.

If he likes to play by himself and does not like his focus interrupted for a change in schedule, you may find he will enjoy school more and have more success emotionally and academically if he begins kindergarten at the more mature age of six. He will be more capable of taking direction and benefiting from a structured day rather than resenting it, the older he gets.

Consider talking with other mothers and any of your son's child care workers or preschool teachers about their experience of your son as he gets older. Sometimes others who care for your child can offer insight into his personality and how his mind works from a more objective viewpoint, which can prove valuable in determining what is right for him.

Still, so much can change in his development by age four-and-a-half, that it is entirely possible that you simply can't know what is right for him at this time! Plan on getting an evaluation from his preschool teacher or other learning specialist if you are still unsure prior to his fifth birthday.

But keep in mind that no one knows your son like you do! As a parent, I have always found that my best judgment about what would benefit my child came from a personal visit to the classroom. You know your son. If you are able to experience the kindergarten classroom that he would participate in, you are sure to get the inevitable "gut" response as to what your son's experience of this setting would be.

Plan on visiting the classroom(s) of your son's potential kindergarten teacher(s) in the springtime, before your son's fifth birthday and trust that you will be able to evaluate what is right for him. Remember, too, that your son will benefit by a continued proactive approach on your part. By this I mean, voicing your needs to the principal for a particular teacher if you feel strongly that your son would do better in one classroom over another, establishing teamwork with his teachers throughout his educational years, and overall being the great Mom you already are, at looking out for his needs.

Research has shown that children whose parents are involved in their education tend to fare better than their counterparts whose parents may not take an interest, or even be intimidated by the educational system. I'd say your son already has a head start with you as his Mom, no matter when he begins his educational career!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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