What’s kindergarten for?

Kelly posted a question about academic expectations in kindergarten: “We have son born in July that just started Kindergarten. We made the decision to not hold him back. (Bucking that trend) Now, we are faced with reports that he needs help focusing and staying on task. What is realistic at this age? I worry that since we did not hold him back that he is being judged against kids that are 1+ years older than him (reference trend of holding boys back). Wonder if this has paved the way for more ADD diagnosis. Thoughts on what is correct expectations at this age? Also, any tips for us to use to try to get him to focus.”

First, let me thank you for “bucking that trend” and starting your son in kindergarten. I’ve written before about how routinely holding kids back is going to lead to problems for many children, both the held-back and their younger peers. Unless a child has a specific delay in intellectual or social development, it is almost always a good idea to get children started in kindergarten when they’re supposed to start. As you’ve seen, though, so many parents are holding especially boys back that the ones who are placed appropriately are often compared with children a year or so older. This is helping nobody. You’ve got an interesting idea about how this might be increasing the rates of ADD diagnoses—I have not seen any studies about how a child’s exact age compared to grade affects the rate of ADD diagnosis, but it’s a plausible thought that ought to be explored.

Kindergarten is not “Zeroth grade.” It was invented by Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel in 1840 as a transition year, in part to prepare children for the more rigorous academic studies that begin in first grade. He envisioned an experience for children to learn to play and communicate appropriately with each other, and to practice social skills and cooperation. From what I’ve seen, it’s only fairly recently here in the United States that kindergarten has changed from a “Children’s Garden”—a place for nurturing and frolic—to the first of many depressing years of a child’s forced gulag of academics.

My expectations of a child in kindergarten probably don’t jibe with those of your son’s teacher, but for what it’s worth, this is what I expect children to learn by the end of their kindergarten year:

• To raise their hand before speaking.
• To not interrupt others.
• To be respectful of elders.
• To take turns, and try to play fairly.
• To tell the truth.

In fact, if a whole year of kindergarten is devoted just to learning the golden rule (“Do unto others as you want others to do unto you”), it’s a year well spent. Let’s face it: many adults have trouble with that simple concept, but very few fail to learn the basic readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic.

You asked about tips to help a kindergarten-aged child focus. I’d look at the basics: ensure a good night’s sleep, keep healthy and filling snacks available, and make sure he’s got plenty of time for physical, unstructured play. (I’ll bet, parenthetically, that another cause of ADD is a simple lack of recess.) Beyond that, if his teacher’s idea of how he ought to be seems very different from your own, you may want to look into changing to a more suitable school.

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3 Comments on “What’s kindergarten for?”

  1. Janice Says:

    I must say, I was faced with this same decision and I opted to send my son to Kindergarten at age 5 yrs, 2 months. I think he’s on target academically, but he’s tiny compared to all the other boys in his class. He’s much shorter and appears so frail compared to all the 6 yr olds (and a few that will turn 7 before Kindergarten is over). I worry about him getting hurt on the playground and also bullying when he’s older.
    I’m not sure if I’ll have him repeat kindergarten or not. If he’s on the fence academically at the end of the year, the size factor will be the determining one.


  2. Allison Says:


    Most of the research shows that grade retention serves absolutely no purpose, and in fact could be harmful, both socially and emotionally, to the child. The time to hold him would have been prior to kindergarten. Since you didn’t, you should keep him in his current grade. Especially since he’s on-target academically. He’ll be fine. 😉


  3. Shannon Says:

    I have a son who was just born in July and even though we are a few years off from kindergarten my husband and I have been discussing this issue. My father was an October birthday and went to school ahead (this was before the Sept. 1 rule) and he wishes that his parents had held him back. I have sister with a September birthday and because we attended a private school, she was allowed to start early in 4 year old preschool. Fortunately, there were many such children in her grade that year and so when they all completed kindergarten, the school formed a Pre-First grade for this group of children with birthdays ranging from June to September. To this day of the children that I personally know, none of them regret being held back this way and one of them, a June birthday, was the salutatorian of their class. And, finally, my husband was a July birthday. To this day, his mother wishes she had held him back and he even feels that he would have succeeded better in school if he were a little older. All of his close friends were in the grade below, and his parents even took him out of public school for 7th and 8th grade because of his immaturity and thought he needed more one on one attention. However, with all that being said, as a college student and an adult he’s very accomplished and attended an Ivy League Law school so in the end he seemed to catch up. However, our dilemma is can we avoid some of the immaturity issues and promote better learning if he is a little older? Many teachers are advocates for holding children back who are younger. I’d like to see some studies on either position.


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