Kindergarten Information Night Making an Informed Decision for Your Child
By Peckie Peters, Teacher
How do I know whether my child is ready for kindergarten? Should I give him or her an extra year to have more time to mature? What characteristics do I look for in a “good” kindergarten program? These kinds of questions fill the minds of parents who are about to send a child to kindergarten. Preparing for the transition from nursery school to kindergarten can produce stress and anxiety as families move from a system where they have felt nurtured and supported to one that is largely unknown to them.
Parents at Bing have the help of the annual Kindergarten Information Night, held this year in January. Those who attended were immediately put at ease by Rick Lloyd, M.D., a local pediatrician and father of five, and Ellen St. Amand, a kindergarten teacher in the Los Altos School District.
Dr. Lloyd gave parents an overview of what to expect from a five-year-old child and some valuable recommendations about how to approach this phase of parenting, including kindergarten readiness. Five-year-olds, he said, tend to be a delight. They want to be “good” in parents’ eyes and tend to look on the good side of life, often exclaiming, “I just love ___!” The best thing parents can do in return is to ensure that their children feel loved and that they feel competent. Their mothers are still the center of their universe, although they are beginning to
distance themselves a bit and need some autonomy. This is a good time to give them responsibility at home so that they see themselves as part of a mutually obliged system to which they can make a valuable contribution. Their play may become more competitive because of a need to feel competent, but parents need to guard against making children feel that they have to be the best at everything or that they will be appreciated only if they are successful.
Magic is very real to five-year-olds, Dr. Lloyd explained, because they still don’t distinguish well between fantasy and reality. This characteristic can create magic for parents who encourage and participate in children’s imaginings, but it also has relevance for children’s entertainment, particularly for the violence they see on television or in movies. Research has demonstrated that, unfortunately, children who observe more violence also demonstrate more aggressive behavior, so parents should be cautious about what children are exposed to.
Five-year-olds have physiological needs, too, Dr. Lloyd reminded parents. They usually have strong food preferences, so they need simple choices and may need encouragement to consume a healthy, well-balanced diet. A good night’s sleep is crucial, too: the average five-year-old needs around eleven hours, and parents may have to rearrange their schedules to ensure that their children get sufficient sleep. Toileting should no longer be an issue, although bedwetting may still occur, more often with boys than with girls.
Dr. Lloyd detailed his focus to three major pressures faced by children at this age: academic achievement, the miniaturization of adulthood, and separation. As an example of the first stress, parents sometimes push their children to be early readers. But reading is developmental just as walking is: children come to these skills at different paces. By age three most children are walking and by the end of the primary grades most are reading; those who walk early are not more likely to be athletes and those who read early are not more likely to be academically successful. Children need to be regarded for who they are, not for what they achieve.
Children need similar individual attention when facing the other two stresses. Our culture increasingly pressures children to become miniature adults in everything from the worries they have to the clothes they wear, but they need to enjoy childhood. And people’s extreme mobility often deprives children of the support systems that extended family used to provide, so other sources of support need to be established.
As for the burning question of whether to send a five-year-old to kindergarten, Dr. Lloyd encouraged parents to trust their own instincts but also suggested consulting the child’s teachers and, if necessary, obtaining a half-hour assessment from the Children’s Health Council. Much of parents’ hesitation about kindergarten may stem from the widely held belief that it is better to hold back children, especially boys, to give them “an edge.” It is true that some children who need to “settle” a bit can benefit from additional time in preschool, especially from a transition like the “Young Fives” program offered in the Palo Alto Unified School District. But generally the urge to hold children back may owe more to the competitive society in which we live than to reality; interestingly, more children are held back in the Silicon Valley than in any other area of the country.
Ellen St. Amand joined in to share her experiences as a kindergarten teacher, agreeing with Dr. Lloyd that “Young Fives” programs can be beneficial except that children may feel disappointed not to stay with peers going on to kindergarten. Being the oldest in a class or being the youngest each has its disadvantages, especially when children reach middle school. While a child’s physical size may have some relevance in terms of developmental readiness, it alone should not be a deciding factor in holding a child back. The deciding factor should be the parents’ own sense of the child.
Ms. St. Amand recommended that parents prepare their child for kindergarten by starting to talk about it months in advance and, if possible, visiting the school. Whatever the schedule, get the child used to it during the month before school opens but still expect that the child will be tired for the first few weeks of adjustment. In choosing a particular program, the length of the kindergarten day should be less a factor than what is required in the classroom. If a morning or afternoon session is offered, the choice should depend on the child’s rhythms and activities.
Although kindergarten is still a time of play and socialization, most programs do have expectations for children’s academic knowledge on exiting kindergarten—for instance, they should be able to recognize and name the numerals 1 to 30, recognize the letters and their sounds, and understand concepts of print. Parents should work with children on whatever interests the children, though Ms. St. Amand and Dr. Lloyd both stressed that reading should be a frequent activity.