Jumping the Gun on Kindergarten

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Peggy Constantine teaches kindergarten at Tomas Rivera Elementary School in Riverside.

Today’s kindergarten is yesterday’s first grade. If your 4- or 5-year-old child is not ready to write sentences and begin reading, give that child a year to develop before starting school. The Gesell Institute of Child Development calls this “the gift of time,” and that’s exactly what it is. To send children to kindergarten before they are ready spells disaster in the new educational climate.

When I began teaching in 1979, there was no curriculum guide for kindergarten. I taught my students how to write their first and last names, and we learned the numbers 1 to 10, alphabet letters and sounds. Eventually, I would have a group of five or six who were ready for reading.

Here is my kindergarten room today: There is a number line made of adding machine tape that stretches along the ceiling. We write a number on the number line each day, beginning with “1” on the first day. There is a huge celebration for “100 Day.” It’s hoped that my students will learn to count to 100 with this incentive.


Students learn about place values. They are expected to be able to write numbers 1 to 30 when they leave kindergarten, as well as to interpret graphs. Toward the end of the year, we will learn how to add and subtract.

Then we do the “Daily News,” an interactive writing exercise. Children report their “news,” which I write with the help of the class. We look for words such as “a,” “and” and “the,” which students take turns circling. We listen for beginning, middle and ending sounds of words, and practice spelling.

Most of my students love the Daily News and they are active participants. But there are those who are simply not developmentally ready for this. During small-group writing time, they don’t understand for many months what I want them to do. And as they notice that other children do understand, they begin to think there is something wrong with them. There isn’t. They’re just not ready to be there.

These are the same children who find guided reading groups difficult. These children try to read, but it is difficult for them to sound out unknown words because they are still not secure in their knowledge of alphabet letters and sounds.

It’s hard for parents to take a stand and keep their child at home or in preschool for an extra year. Family and friends question the wisdom of giving a child an extra year to develop when the Legislature says it’s time for them to go. I once had a student named James who struggled with everything we did. He had a late birthday, and he just wasn’t ready. His parents decided to give him another year in kindergarten. But then, James’ mother changed her mind and sent him on to first grade because, she said, “the grandparents aren’t happy.” James was the one who paid for this decision. He became a behavior problem in the middle grades and was eventually retained in fourth or fifth grade. How much easier it would have been for James had he “been retained” at home one more year before going to school.

What many parents don’t know is that school standards have been raised so drastically that even children who are ready for the new curriculum find it challenging. Chronological readiness is not the same as developmental readiness. Ask yourself if your child has the social and emotional maturity and the small motor (hand) development to succeed in today’s accelerated kindergarten program. If not, give him or her that precious gift of time. Then watch that youngster grow and learn with joy, rather than stress. It is never a mistake to wait.