Academic achievement or intelligence were not the issues on Timothy Welsh's mind when he considered this spring whether to hold back two to four of his 25 kindergartners from going on to first grade.
"The ones that I considered just seemed younger," he says. "It could be that they were socially or physically just not keeping up with others. Some were less organized and didn't seem to tune into the teacher's agenda. They were kind of one step behind socially, so their feelings got hurt on things." Direction-following was another problem, says Mr. Welsh, who teaches at Murch Elementary in Washington.
Welsh, a veteran teacher with a quick laugh and a happy, noisy classroom, says he doesn't like to send a child on who may still be unable to shrug off conflict with other kids or lacks the memory or language skills to follow several sets of directions. Those deficiencies, he believes, can undermine children's achievement far more than whether they knows the alphabet or can add before entering first grade.
"First grade is one of those grades where you've got to get things learned no matter what they do," he says. "It's so structured that sometimes it squeezes out a child's natural curiosity and love of learning. If they're too young, it will happen faster.
"If they can't follow directions, they're going to spin their wheels," he goes on. "They're going to get it wrong and have to do it again. If they're distracted by those around them or by an argument they didn't settle, their work won't be completed and they'll fall behind."
First-grade teachers at Welsh's school say improving social skills and direction-following is part of their agenda. They say it's often just a matter of time for most children to adjust from kindergarten's free-form curriculum to the "sit down and learn" approach of first grade.
In the end, Welsh says he held back only one student - a girl who was lagging behind in language development and social skills.
Kindergarten teachers, he notes, are constantly challenged by the varying degrees of growth among five- and six-year olds. Still, he says most younger children adjust fine to first grade. It's the few whose developmental needs aren't met that he doesn't want to miss. "I'm an early childhood specialist. Yet it remains the central question of my career: Is this a learning disability or a child who just needs more time to be a kid?"