Education Opinion

What’s a 4-Year-Old Doing in Kindergarten?

By Tamara Fisher — October 13, 2010 11 min read
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Parent of an early-entrance child: We live in a town where many parents, school board members, and teachers hold their kids back a grade in school so they can excel in sports. When such a choice appears to be an accepted norm, accelerating a young boy into school goes against the local culture. Some parents and teachers have tried to politely ask me if I’ve considered the implications of my son “always being the youngest.” At first, I felt like I had to defend my son and our decision to them. Now, I simply state that “parents try to do what they feel is best for their child. We looked at the research and our child’s readiness and made the decision. He’s thriving in school and sports, too.” If the well-meaning continue to inquire, I share my unique sports perspective: I went to college on a sports scholarship. Were sports important to me? Yes. However, being challenged in school to be a whole person was - and is - more important.

Early entrance to Kindergarten is one excellent option for some highly advanced children. It is the process by which a child enters Kindergarten earlier than he or she otherwise would have according to school or state decreed “cut-off dates.” In Montana, our magical date is September 10th. If the child is five years old on or before September 10th of that year, he gets to go to Kindergarten. If he turns five on September 11th or later, he goes the next year.

To some degree, yes, this system creates a tidy little package whereby decisions are made without, frankly, much thought put into them. It’s cut and dried and easy - and it works for the majority of kids. But readers of this blog know that when one was born does not necessarily determine what one is ready and able to learn. Enter Early Entrance.

So what’s a 4-year-old doing in Kindergarten? Well, fifty years of research show that early entrance is ONE (usually good!) option for SOME (not all) highly advanced youngsters. In our district, we run these potential candidates through our Kindergarten screening process in the spring right along with all the other kids. An early entrance candidate who achieves a certain score and rating (essentially two standard deviations beyond the mean, plus we take into account other factors) is then strongly considered for early entrance. Of the, on average, seven or eight children whose parents want to send them early, about one or two (sometimes none) are deemed ready to actually come. (There is no single, perfect process for making these determinations, but the way our district has navigated this over the years does, overall, seem to be working for us.)

So we have a small handful of children in our district at various stages in their education who came to school at the grand age of four. While there have been a few bumps along the road (isn’t it a rare kid who doesn’t have bumps along the road?), they are all doing well overall (yes, both academically AND socially).

I asked a few parents, teachers, and administrators of these children to offer some of their insights on this process and the results, in part to help prepare any of you out there who might be considering early entrance for the unexpected angles that can come with the territory.

Parent #1: Several of my acquaintances believe that it is important to keep kids home an extra year, starting them at six rather than five. They do this for many reasons, chiefly so that their children are the best at sports and academics because they are a year older. Therefore, when they discovered that my 4-year-old was starting Kindergarten, they were less than supportive. Several people gave the argument that she would be younger than everyone else, and would therefore be facing pressures to date, etc. at a younger age. Also, they argued that she would be maturing later and would be smaller than everyone else. However, all of these milestones occur at different times for different children and age is not really a factor.

Someone has to be the youngest in the class! Why not let it be a child who is ahead of the curve? Someone has to be the smallest, the biggest, the fastest, the oldest. But school shouldn’t be about arbitrary factors. It should be about learning.

Parent #2: Our son needs a lot of sleep. When he was in preschool, he used to take three hour naps plus eleven hours of sleep at night. In school, he often looks tired in the afternoon. We still try to get him eleven hours of sleep, but he rarely has time for naps (though we try). Kids tease other kids who still need naps, so our son resists and resents the nap. Is our son tired in the afternoon because he’s younger than other kids, or because he simply needs more sleep? I don’t know the answer; I don’t think it should matter. I do know that when he gets enough sleep, he does great!

The above child is already a few years into school, so it’s not a Kindergartener the parent is talking about. Every year he has been in school (and obviously before), he has needed LOTS of sleep. He just needs more sleep than “average.” The fact that he was early-entranced hasn’t created this in him. It might have highlighted it more, but had he entered Kindergarten when he was “supposed” to, he would still be a student needing eleven-plus hours of sleep and a nap to boot.

Principal #1: Teachers in general don’t understand or believe that a younger child should be admitted early, and this lack of understanding is where some of the problems can stem from. I can say that I have noticed that the early entrance kids, over the first few years I am able to observe them, do very well.

Teacher #1: Especially in the early years, they might require short breaks from focused work (to get a drink, walk around the classroom), they might need a little extra positive encouragement, they might need some organizational tips for backpack and other belongings, and they might need a bit more time, assistance, and/or instruction for tasks that involve fine motor skills, but for the most part - especially academically - they fit quite well. The little stuff can be accommodated and becomes less of an issue each year.

For my fellow Gifted Specialists out there: Perhaps we shouldn’t take it for granted that every teacher will understand and agree with the decision to early entrance a child. Perhaps we need to take advantage of the opportunity to offer them some insights from the research (that it is a good option, for some kids, with overall positive results), to offer them some handy management tips, to offer them an ear and support - and to give them the time to see it work.

Teacher #2: Over the years, I have had a couple of very young students who were at the top of my class academically. These students needed certain accommodations due to occasional immaturity and tiredness issues, but were highly successful otherwise.

Parent #3: When our son speaks out of turn in class or doesn’t follow directions when it’s time to drop what he’s doing (transition is difficult for him), some teachers over the years (not all) have mentioned his age, energy level, or maturity in conversations with me. I agree completely that our son needs to be respectful of his peers and teacher in the classroom, and I promise to support the teacher’s efforts in the classroom by reminding our son of appropriate behavior. However, don’t think that such behavior is a function of his age. Our older son had many more behavior issues in the same grade; not once did a teacher bring up age or maturity when talking to us about him. Rather, they focused on the child, the circumstances, and the strategies to correct the behavior. I believe my younger son will have difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another regardless if he’s the youngest or the oldest in the classroom. He just gets so wrapped up in what he’s doing that he resists when reminded to stop. This is the behavior we need to help him with - regardless of age.

Many gifted children, especially during their elementary years, struggle with transitioning from one activity to another because they are able to get so completely immersed into tasks they love. This child’s struggle with transitions is not a factor of his-age-compared-to-others, it is a factor of his giftedness and personality. No matter when he had entered school, he would be struggling with this. Blaming it on early entrance doesn’t help him learn how to manage better in a classroom and doesn’t help him learn how to transition better. As the teacher and parent both point out, what does help the child is addressing the behavior (not the age) and finding strategies for helping the child to manage.

Principal #2: I have noticed some people choose to keep their kids out before Kindergarten, making the age disparity between early entrance kids and others even wider. The older kids do not necessarily do better, either, as they often already know what is being taught and are therefore more likely to get bored. The parents of the older (i.e. “redshirted”) kids tend to be judgmental towards the parents who advocate for their gifted children to start early. The early start kids may be a little more tired (with full-day Kindergarten in our district), but they adjust pretty quickly.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it, that parents who have made a decision to wait a year to send their child to school, parents who have considered all the factors and have made a decision that they think is best for their child, are the ones giving the most grief to the parents of the early entrance kids, parents who have also considered all the factors and who have also made a decision that they think is best for their child?

Parent #1: Some of the other challenges that we are facing are that everyone is expecting her to not do well, so her every move is scrutinized to make sure she is mature enough to be in Kindergarten. I think that there is a preconceived notion that younger students have more trouble interacting well with their peers, but no one in her class sees her as four.

Parent #3: In Kindergarten, our son was sent to the principal’s office for a playground incident (shoving). In working with our child after the incident, a member of the school’s Student Assistance Team recommended we hold our child back to repeat Kindergarten. We were baffled. Both of us [the child’s parents] had done something similar on the playground when we were kids, even as old as 5th grade. Why would one incident be reason to have a child repeat a grade? Soon, we heard daily or weekly reports of anything our son did that was unacceptable, such as elbowing to get a better spot in line or blurting out in class. We felt like his behavior was under a microscope simply because he was younger. Fortunately, we were able to share this sentiment with the principal, who assured us that such behavior is not necessarily uncommon with Kindergarteners. (Unacceptable, yes. Uncommon, no.) The next year, our son had a wonderful 1st grade teacher who simply saw him as another 1st grade student in her class. His confidence rose and the negative behaviors went away. In that classroom, age didn’t matter.

Parent #4: My daughter entered Kindergarten at age four - back in 1979! I found there were lowered expectations for her from her Kindergarten and first grade teachers. She was reading chapter books and yet was required to color and cut & paste letters and sounds... without actually getting a pre-primer book in her hands (in school) till around Christmas of her first grade year. Her interest in these cut & paste activities was very low, and her fine motor development was not quite where the older kids were. So, she was held in from recesses to “finish” her work and her first grade teacher recommended retention for these non-academic issues. Fortunately, she had a great second grade teacher who challenged her. In the third grade, she was able to participate in the gifted program. I believe she was able to meet her potential by starting early. [And today she is a lawyer and a happily-married mother of two.]

Whether it’s with higher expectations or lower expectations, many will see the child through a skewed lens, based on their perceptions of what age means in relation to a child entering school. The parents, teachers, and principals above have done their best to send the message - most importantly to their children and students - that school is about learning, not when they were born. These children have all had more positive experiences in classrooms where the teacher focused on them as an individual child with strengths and weaknesses - just like any other child who also has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

Assuming that a child who is deemed ready to enter Kindergarten at age four is somehow a super-child - perfect in behavior, attendance, performance, attitude, aptitude, diligence, handwriting, and scissor-skills - is to place on that child something that we wouldn’t even place on ourselves as adults. At the same time, assuming that a child who is deemed ready to enter Kindergarten at age four is just like an average four-year-old child is to woefully underestimate what the child will need as a learner.

A child who is ready for Kindergarten at age four is just that: a CHILD who is ready for KINDERGARTEN.

They are still unique individuals who will come to school (no matter when they come!) with their own unique talents, issues, and potentialities - just like any other child. Extraneous issues aren’t created by when they were born or when they enter school. Those things are just a part of the package (for all of us!). Allowing early entrance for these children means schools making a research-based effort to find and reach this tiny fraction of our students in a way that can be one piece of the puzzle in our overall efforts to do what’s best for them as learners (just as we should for all of our learners). Early entrance won’t be the end of it. They may still need academic accommodations and differentiation. They may still need the services of a gifted program. And they, like every child, will most certainly need the support and guidance of their parents and teachers.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.