Saturday, October 29, 2011

Getting schooled on school

In case you haven’t noticed my picture-posting has been running low recently.  The kids and I are eternally busy, but most of our picture moments have been associated with pumpkin patches or fall leaves—and even I’m getting tired of those.  I’ll make an effort to take something more exciting like Frances and George in a duel headlock.  But until then, pictures may be scarce and/or boring – you have been warned.

So what have we been doing you ask?  My time this fall has been primarily occupied by school—specifically what to do for Frances’s schooling for next year.  Frances will be four in November (*sniff*), which means she is less than six weeks past the traditional cut-off age for starting public Kindergarten next year.  She would need to be five-years-old by September 30, 2012, no exceptions (at least not in our county public schools and about 99% of the private schools here in Richmond).  But as my mother (and probably Will) can tell you, I am not one to take “no exceptions” lying down (“but what if your child is the exception?!?”).  Of course I am kidding.  Frances is smart, sweet, calm, patient, a quick learner and introverted without being shy; but I am not claiming she is a child genius (“my Timmy could read by 18 months”) or some kind of learning prodigy.  But I have always thought that she would probably be ready for Kindergarten earlier than our county says she should be.  Her preschool teachers have been telling me this for at least a year, so I assumed that my only job would be to find the right private school to send her for a year or two until little bro could join her in our great neighborhood public school (and as an aside, the thought of paying for school is killing me, particularly when we live in one of the highest ranked public school districts in the state.  This is why we moved here after all.  But it is what it is.)

But the following is what I have learned in this endeavor:
·        Kindergarten is now called “the new first grade,” which means that children who are in Kindergarten and consequently all subsequent grades are learning material and being tested at least a grade ahead of where they traditionally fell.  I suppose this can be blamed in part on SOL testing requirements and the universally loved “No Child Left Behind Act.”

·        Because Kindergarten is seen as harder, parents are holding their children back a year.  Even children whose birthdays are before the September 30th cut-off (often several months before—as in March or April) are keeping them in preschool another year.  This means that there are children who are turning seven (yes, seven) in Kindergarten.

·        Consequently, because these children are older for their grade-level, parents are often demanding higher results, which in turn makes Kindergarten (and again the subsequent grades) learning requirements much more difficult.  Can you see the catch-22?  In fact, I have read articles where a parent will approach the Kindergarten teacher and ask whether his child ranks in the top 10% of his class.  Ranking.  In Kindergarten.
Needless to say, all of this research terrified me.  I talked to many parents who highly encouraged me to hold Frances back because she would have a better chance of making it into the gifted program.  I’m sorry?  In fact, some parents and educators told me that I should already consider holding George back since his birthday is two days before the cut-off (September 28th) and he will be one of the youngest in his class. 

All of this advice blew my mind.  Instinctively it wasn’t making sense to me that it is wise to hold children back from learning just so that they are more likely to end up in the top 10% of their class.  Something did not add up.  (And as another aside, I am in no way speaking about the parents who decide to hold their children another year because those kids are just not ready for traditional school.  I have no doubt that there are some 5-year-olds who need one more year of pre-K in order to be able to sit still for a 6-hour day, five days a week.  To those parents, I tip my hat to you because I know that’s a hard decision to make).

Then my often-cited friend (and go-to person for all things maternal) Sara sent me a great article from the New York Times written by two child development specialists talking about this very phenomenon – holding children back from Kindergarten so that they will excel in comparison to their peers.  In essence the doctors found that those kids did do well in Kindergarten and often through grade school.  But once middle and high school kicked in, many of these children leveled out and some even started slipping behind their peers.  In a very simplified version, their theory was that these children’s brains had not been tapped into during those early developmental years and had not been “stretched” (without over-stretching of course) to learn and work hard.  In other words, school was initially too easy for them and once it became hard for everyone (regardless of age) those older children didn’t know how to handle it.

I read this article and thought, “Finally – a theory that makes sense to me!”

If nothing else, I have learned that when a child should start school is an exceptional question—it is an individual decision and should be determined child-to-child and not when his or her birthday happens to fall.  I don’t want Frances to be so overwhelmed in her new environment that her mind shuts down or her nerves fray.  But it is a bigger risk for me not to tap into that little mind of hers early—to see that her potential for learning, socializing and progressing is reached when she is ready and not when the county says she should be.

So, we've decided to bite the bullet and send Frances to a private Kindergarten next year (and on to public school the following year).  I think she will do fine; I think we’ve made the right decision; I think, I think, I think.  But I don’t know and I won’t know for certain for many years now.

And isn’t that always the case in parenting.  Finally a universal truth I’m sure we can all agree on.


  1. Who knew Kindergarten would be such a challenging decision? My older son turned 5 last March and began Kindergarten this fall. Even as a March birthday, there were people who asked if he was going to wait another year since he's a boy. The holding back just to help your child excel at academics or sports does not make sense to me. The holding back because of maturity does make sense. My sister's oldest is an August birthday. He went to Kindergarten right after he turned 5. He's done great academically (he's one of the top in his class), but he's struggled sometimes with the maturity expectations. He is 10 months or more younger than a majority of boys in his class because they all waited an extra year. Thus he is expected to act at a higher level of maturity because his peers are older. He's in 3rd grade now and continues to do well academically but still struggles some socially and with teacher behavior expectations. My son's preschool teacher told me the same thing your friend said--each child is different. Readiness is not about age but about ability to handle the demands and expectations of teachers and peers and the school experience. It sounds like you've spent a lot of time making the right decision for Frances. She is lucky to have such a dedicated mom.

  2. Thank you, Haley! I'm so glad you commented - this post has been making me nervous because I didn't want it to come across as judgmental (I hope it didn't!). I absolutely agree that children mature at different times and maturity vs. intelligence are mutually exclusive. It's completely child specific. All of these decisions have been churning around in my head for the last 2 months I felt the need to get them in writing; but of course, I could be completely wrong on all accounts. Who knew is right?!

  3. Isn't it such a relief to get the decision made?!?Now you know what you can plan on and I know that must be a good feeling. And I seriously don't think you need to fret any more. Frances will be fine. She'll love school and she'll continue to amaze you in ways you probably never foresaw as she continues to progress and mature.

    (As an aside, I was also in the same boat as Frances when I was four, as I missed the cutoff by a mere five weeks. My mom still says she wishes I could have gone a year before I actually did. And I did, too, when I got old enough to realize that I spent a good bit of my day coloring while waiting on everyone else to finish up with their work. And I couldn't understand why we were wasting time on everyone learning letters and sounds and all that nonsense because I had been reading for a while when I started school. Am I saying this because I think I was/am a mad genius? Of course not. [Although now I feel a little bit cheated as my brain wasn't really stretched when I was young...] It's just that I was really, truly ready for school at four. All that to say that mothers generally know what's best for their kids and that if you think Frances is ready, then I'd be willing to bet that you're absolutely right. Digression!)

    I agree that this is such a complex issue that differs from family to family, and from child to child. But what I can't see is the logic in deciding what your child/ren will be doing when they're as young as--or younger than--George! That's crazy talk.

    I also don't agree on the holding back for the goal of getting into a gifted program. I personally think that kids who are "gifted" will test into it even if they're not held back or (gasp!) if they go to school at an earlier age. Let's face it, general aptitude is general aptitude regardless of when a child starts school. It's unlikely that keeping a child home for a year will make a huge difference in (a) general learning capacity and (b) the outcome of GT testing. Parents don't like to hear things like that but the point of such programs is that they're for truly exceptional children, not children who slightly outperform their peers.

    I could go on forever about such matters but I'll spare you! I will say, though, that I'm so excited for Frances! She's going to do great!

    And PS. you're way too nice. If you had seen me Saturday completely losing my mind over Will not following my directions while making Halloween cookies, of all things, you would probably be rethinking my status as a reliable source of any kind of parenting-related knowledge. Seriously.

    OK, I'll end this diatribe right here. Happy Halloween!!