It takes more than turning - or counting to - 5

Mary Fleck, principal of Oak Street Elementary School in Basking Ridge, N.J., is used to calls from anxious parents considering whether to register a child for kindergarten. But she was surprised recently when the mother of a one-year-old asked to attend back-to-school night -just to get a feel for the demands of kindergarten.

Then again, she says, it's not unusual anymore for pregnant women to call with fretful questions about the kindergarten curriculum.

Academic memories of that first year of school typically hark to something like successfully steering a pair of scissors along a straight line. But as the push for standards and accountability reaches primary grades, story time is sounding more like "Short story writing with crayons." At the same time, parents of preschoolers are contemplating strategies to position kids for elite colleges.

As a result, many are left wondering how to get tots ready for school. In most states, the only criterion for enrollment is age - generally speaking, kids must turn 5 before September or October. In Texas, a bill is pending in the Senate that would require kids to turn 5 by May 31 to be eligible for kindergarten that fall.

While some districts offer assessments for the K-bound, no state has an official definition of school readiness, according to a 2000 survey by the National Center for Early Development and Learning. Still, there's a growing consensus among experts that emotional and social maturity (accepting defeat in tic-tac-toe, for example) is more important than a narrow set of academic skills.

Indeed, for many kindergarten teachers - 46 percent, according to a report last fall by the US Department of Health and Human Services - first on their wish list are children who can follow instructions.

Parents who recognize this can combine academic basics and more informal learning into a very young child's daily routine. "A 5-year-old could set the dinner table. There's math learning that goes on there," says Kathy Politz, 2000 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

Ms. Politz, who taught kindergarten in West Terre Haute, Ind., also advises that trips to the zoo or library can round out kids' social skills. But above all, Politz urges parents to "talk to them about everything."

Marilou Hyson, associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, agrees. "Even when you think they're not, [kids are] picking up what you say."

For example, those who read to their children help them develop attentiveness, curiosity, and good relationships with adults -all of which give them an edge when school starts. "Positive relationships with adults is really money in the bank for children," Ms. Hyson says.

Where educators sometimes quarrel is when, if ever, a child should be considered not ready to start school.

In affluent communities, college-minded parents are

apt to have a child repeat pre-school if it means a leg up in academics and sports. Other parents cite more immediate concerns. For Kim O'Connell, director of the Tree House Child Caring Center in Basking Ridge, it's a developmental issue. "You don't run until you learn to walk," says Ms. O'Connell, whose youngest son repeated a year of preschool because he wasn't mature enough.

But with only a few states moving toward universal preschool, not entering kindergarten can translate for many children into another year gazing at a television.

"Parents have to really evaluate the decision ... on the basis of what they'd do with [their child] otherwise," says Robert Pianta, a University of Virginia education professor and co-editor of "The Transition to Kindergarten."

Even kids who have the opportunity to repeat a pre-K program aren't always better off. That's true especially if there is a specific issue -such as early signs of a learning disability - that needs to be addressed. It's up to parents and teachers to be able to articulate that need, says Mr. Pianta. Then, if they do decide to keep their 5-year-old out of kindergarten, "they need to look for an environment that's different from the environment they just went through so they gain something from it," he says.

But whether a child is ready for school may not be the real question. Pianta and others are pushing another line of thinking: Are schools ready for kids?

Sylvia Rosenfield, a school psychologist, says schools have two choices - they can assume a child is not ready, or they can learn to adjust to children's individual needs. "The whole term children are 'not ready' to learn is absurd to me," she says.

Politz agrees. "As a teacher, a lot of the responsibility of readiness falls on me," she admits, adding that she used group activities and playtime to create moments in the day to attend to kids who needed extra help as well as those who were ready for more challenges.

But other teachers are less rosy, noting that one person to a group of 20 to 25 kids -including several who can't sit still for longer than 30 seconds - is merely crowd control. "I think [it's] an admirable position," says O'Connell of the mantra that schools need to be prepared for all kids. "But I don't think it's a realistic position."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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