When it came time to put her son in kindergarten, Holly Hankins faced a tough choice: Should he enter as one of the youngest in the class, or should he wait a year?
Like many other parents in 1985, she chose the latter. And she's glad she did.
"It was one of those years that everyone did that with boys [because they say they develop later than girls]," says Mrs. Hankins, mother of three in Washington. "He's been bored on and off, but I think he would have been bored regardless. At least now he's more mature."
A similar decision, however, left Cheryl Flax-Davidson with mixed feelings. "In the early grades, it seemed fine, because it gave her confidence," she says of her youngest child. "But lately, I think some of her friends are less mature and she's having trouble finding kids she can play with."
It's an age-old question: When is a child ready to start formal schooling? Kindergarten is widely viewed as key preparation for first grade, when a child needs to have mastered social skills so as to be able to concentrate on reading and math. Traditionally, school districts have dictated that any child who turns 5 before Dec. 31 should be in kindergarten.
But over the years, support has been growing for delaying entry into kindergarten. Today only four states - Maryland, Connecticut, Hawaii, Rhode Island - and the District of Columbia still have the end of the calendar year as an entrance cut-off date. In an attempt to ensure the child's readiness to learn, most of the others now require children to turn five by September, or earlier. And many parents are voluntarily holding children back.
Some consider it insurance against repeating kindergarten or future grades. But in an increasingly competitive era, many parents simply like the idea of giving their child an academic and social boost by being older. The popularity of doing so, particularly among well-educated, middle-class Americans, has some questioning whether it really produces benefits.
Nancy Elbin, a Montgomery County, Md., guidance counselor who taught first grade for 26 years and has researched retention issues, says studies have found no evidence that holding a child back is "a positive thing to do. Those who repeat don't generally outperform the others."
Look before you leap
Indeed, experts caution parents against rash judgments.
"If you have a child on the younger side ... don't use the child's reading or math ability [or] the child's size, if they're tall," says Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist at George Washington University Medical School in Washington.
What parents should do, he says, is "look at how well the child is able to reason, how quick he is to think on his feet, his ability to read social cues, and his analytical reading and problem solving. Look at the ability to follow instructions and ideas."
If children appear "sluggish" in those areas, he notes, "you might want to buy them another year. Otherwise, they can move on."
He says parents can help children prepare for school - and gauge their readiness - by reading aloud, ensuring play with peers, and playing in inventive ways. He suggests daily "floor time," where parents follow the child's lead, "reading, imagining, and problem-solving" and helping them catch nonverbal social cues.
Is bigger really better?
Ultimately, the evidence is mixed as to whether a delay can help children. In Fairfax County, Va., Douglas Holmes, the director of student services, says his state chose to hold back children who turn 5 after Sept. 30 because of "concern by educators that the kids who were most unsuccessful academically were younger kids.
"What we know is that kids who came in with October to December birthdays were retained at a higher rate," he says.
But, he notes, "What's missing in that is the many [as many as two-thirds] who were successful."
Nevertheless, the view persists that children may have a cutting edge by being older, more articulate, and just plain larger. That assumption may be redefining the kindergarten year. Not only do teachers have students as much as a year apart in age, but they are facing more demands from parents, especially in more affluent areas, who want a curriculum that incorporates academics.
Timothy Welsh, a veteran teacher at Murch Elementary in Washington, says kindergarten should help children to learn to work in groups, to shed the egocentricity of earlier childhood, and gain skills to sort out conflict.
"They have to be able to share, to delay gratification, to treat each other with respect," he says. "It's being able to walk away from another child instead of knocking the blocks down. And it's laying that foundation so they're not dealing with these issues when they're buckling down to make those test scores that are so important."
* Next: moving from elementary to middle school.
What A Good Kindergarten Should Have
Parents should check out their children's future kindergarten classroom. A visit can establish ties with the school principal and teacher, and smooth the way for easy contact during the year.
What should parents look for? First and foremost a warm and flexible teacher who creates an atmosphere that feels "secure and well-organized," says Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist at George Washington University Medical School in Washington. According to Mr. Greenspan and the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, a kindergarten class should have:
* A curriculum that focuses on imaginative play and lots of interaction and is flexible enough to accommodate children at varying levels of ability.
* An approach that encourages discussion and activities, rather than passive learning.
* A predictable routine.
* Walls decorated with children's artwork and writing.
* Long periods of time for children to play and explore.
* Daily outside play.
* A teacher who reads books during the day, not just at group story time.
* A teacher who works with small groups and individuals.
Greenspan says having the latest in equipment is not a gauge of a strong program. But the class should have a "make-believe" corner where children can play as well as do activities such as blocks and books. Other important toys include pegboards and puzzles, especially ones that relate to beginning math and alphabet skills.