When should you send your kid to school?

What should you do if you don't feel your child is ready to go off to school just yet? Some experts weigh in.

Photo by Paul Biris/Getty Images

The summer before Christy Ann Conlin’s son, Silas, was supposed to enter senior kindergarten, she wondered if he was ready. At four, he hadn’t yet outgrown his nap, often falling asleep on long afternoon drives. Silas knew his letters and numbers, but Conlin thought he wasn’t emotionally prepared for a large class in a structured environment.

With a late October birthday, he was poised to be the youngest in his class, and she didn’t want him struggling to keep up. She had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which opens by examining why a disproportionate number of professional hockey players are born in January, February and March. Turns out it’s because the eligibility cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada is January 1. Kids with birthdays early in the year tend to be physically stronger than those even a few months younger. The same, he writes, is true for the education system. Older kids have an advantage – and it doesn’t go away over the years, but builds into a pattern of achievement and confidence that sets the path for a child’s future.

No wonder Conlin wanted to wait another year to enrol him in SK. “I didn’t want him to start out with a handicap. I wanted him to be ready and feeling confident.”

?The dilemma
For many parents with children born late in the year, deciding when to put their child in school can be as onerous as where. Although the birthday cut-off and entry rules for senior kindergarten vary by province and by school board, in most places, a child must be five years old by Dec. 31. So do you push your kid ahead and hope he manages being the youngest in the class, or do you hold him back to give him an academic and physical edge?

While there are no statistics in Canada, the National Center for Education Statistics in the US reports that about seven percent of kidergarten-age kids are held back. That number goes up dramatically in more affluent households where parents don’t have to worry about being able to afford another year of child care.

?Consider your options
“If your child will be the youngest in the class, I’d recommend holding them back,” says Angus Thompson, a former University of Alberta professor who wrote a 2004 study that showed the oldest first-graders had much higher self-esteem than their younger classmates. “The kids who are younger are disadvantaged, not just in the year they start, but in later years as well. The effect is ongoing.”

But starting a child in kindergarten when he’s closer to age six, with peers who are four, isn’t perfect either. Socially, the older kids might not fit in well with their younger friends, who are interested in different things.

That’s not something that concerns Jacquie Thiessen, a kindergarten teacher and mother of three children, all with fall birthdays. She says the biggest issue is social readiness – being able to focus and follow the structure of a school day and being excited about learning. Determining social readiness is obviously highly subjective, but some schools can provide assessments to help you decide.

“I see lots of kids come in before they’re ready,” she says, “so I encourage parents to take the long view of a child’s education. The decision to retain a child might be difficult in the short term – and some parents just can’t afford it – but the benefits over time can make a big difference.”

Thiessen didn’t hold back her daughter and older son, but says, in retrospect, her son would have been better off with an extra year of confidence. Her youngest is now four, born in November. He’s eligible to enter kindergarten next year, but she won’t be sending him. Academically, Thiessen knows he’d be fine but, she says, “he’s not ready to enter the bigger world.”

Missing opportunities?
This concept of holding kids back from kindergarten troubles David Booth, professor emeritus in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. “I think the concept is frightening,” he says. “Holding them back from what? Plasticine? Learning? Change? Not everyone’s an NHL player. You have to see kindergarten as an experiencing year. It’s not just about attaining a certain level. That’s not what learning is about anymore.”

Booth says that with a little help from teachers and in-class assistants, most kids will do just fine. “A kid who has just turned five can make huge leaps forward in a year. We don’t want to hold a kid back if they can make that jump. Personal best is a good way of looking at it: working at your potential for your age and stage.” That said, Booth admits it’s hard for teachers to have a full-year age gap in a kindergarten class. Where you have a teacher and an early childhood educator together, the younger children will have a chance to develop their skills and not fall behind. Not every school has that, but it’s increasingly prevalent.

It all comes down to support
Greg Devenish is the principal of St. George’s Junior School, an independent boys’ school in Vancouver. “Our policy is to accept students at the right grade level and give them learning support to keep them with their social group,” he says. “For most, being with the same age group is very important to emotional, social and academic development. But physically and emotionally, there’s a huge difference between December and January boys until grade five.”

Devenish has this suggestion: “Don’t rush. Some kids take longer to get up the ladder. If your child has good judgment and a sense of humour, he’ll make out all right. Children learn at different levels and different times. They just need the right support.”

For Conlin, having extra support still wasn’t enough to convince her to start her son in school when he was four. Today, Silas is six and the oldest kid in his kindergarten class. He’s excelling and Conlin thinks she made the right choice. “I have no regrets,” she says “He has more poise and confidence. He can focus and be a leader in the class and set a good example for the younger kids. He moved up when he was ready. We’re not rushing him through his childhood.”

A version of this article appeared in our March 2012 issue, with the headline I’m not ready for S.K. (p. 64). Want to talk to other parents about this issue? Join the Education discussion in our forums!

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