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PARENTING : When the 1st Bell Rings : * Emotional and academic development should determine when to enroll a child in kindergarten.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Barbara Bronson Gray writes regularly for The Times</i>

For parents of children born in the kindergarten cut-off season--from late August to December, depending on the school--deciding whether to start them in elementary school or wait a year can be tough. Are youngsters better off being the oldest or the youngest in their class? Is intellectual readiness enough, or must a child demonstrate a certain degree of emotional maturity as well?

Children who have already spent two or more years in preschool may seem ready for a change, but an academically oriented kindergarten can be quite a leap.

“It’s a very individual issue and depends a lot on the child’s development,” said Judy Jacobsen, director of the Westminster Presbyterian Preschool in Westlake Village.

One place for parents to start, of course, is with the school of their choice. If it’s a public school, the state Education Code is clear about cut-offs, said Susan Thompson, an administrator with the California Department of Education’s child development division in Sacramento.

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To begin kindergarten, children must be 4 years and 9 months old by Sept. 1, or 5 years old by Dec. 1, although a little-known provision of state law allows districts to admit students with slightly later birthdays as soon as they turn 5.

Private schools differ in their cut-off dates, but generally suggest that kindergartners be 5 by Oct. 1.

Even going by the dates may not help much, however, according to Elizabeth Crane, professor of educational psychology and counseling at Cal State Northridge.

Crane maintains that the cut-offs have no basis in specific educational research or recommendations. “All it amounts to is that some administrator somewhere has put an arbitrary date down,” she said.

Such entry dates differ widely, she added. In other countries, such as England, children are simply admitted when they turn 5, even if this means having them begin school in the middle of the academic year.

As any parent can testify, there’s a wide divergence among the maturity levels of 5-year-olds. So moms and dads should consider their child and the various kindergarten programs carefully before making a decision.

In the past decade, theories about what kindergarten should be have changed drastically. Thompson said that in 1987, the state’s school readiness task force concluded that public school kindergarten was becoming too academic and that some children were being left behind. As a result, in 1988, the Department of Education published a booklet, “Here They Come: Ready or Not!” (California State Department of Education, 1988, $5.50), encouraging what educators call developmentally appropriate curricula.

“The bottom line is that kindergartens have to be ready for the child, and receptive to the fact that children are going to be at all different developmental levels,” Thompson said.

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Because not all schools--especially private schools--agree with this philosophy, the key, experts say, is to visit the class to make certain the teacher will gear the curriculum and the pace to the individual child.

This has become more important in recent years, according to Jacobsen, because more parents have been choosing to hold their children back. The result is that a kindergarten class can fill up with a broad range of ages, including many older students, which can put a much younger child at a disadvantage.

Marlene Frantz of Topanga Canyon decided to enroll her October-born son, Kieffer, as soon as he was eligible. She has sometimes been frustrated seeing how children who were held back affect the class. “Bored, huge egos, advanced skills on the playground--these can be problems for the others,” she said. Kieffer, however, has done well. In Frantz’s view, “holding him back a year would have been a sentence for boredom.”

At Valley Beth Shalom, which has an academically oriented kindergarten, the biggest challenge, headmaster Steve Bogad said, is having to coach resistant parents to hold a child back.

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“There’s lots of ego involved,” he said. “But I think a child belongs where he or she belongs. If a child is born in August and yet is developmentally ready, don’t leave him out. It works both ways.”

Crane conceded that the downside of a bad decision is daunting. “To be pushed into a situation of experiencing inferiority or incompetency can have a long-term effect,” she said. Yet to be bored with the basics can create other problems.


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