Young school age children, particularly in kindergarten and first grade, often hit typical child development stages at different times. Milestones aren't necessarily reached on a child's birthday, but certain development is expected within certain age ranges.
Classroom Age Spans
When a child enters school, they are not just entering with other children exactly the same age or at the same level of development. While this is true regardless of a child's grade, it is particularly noticeable in the primary elementary grades. Depending on the district in which you reside, when your child's birthday falls, and whether you choose public, private, or parochial school, your child may be four, five, or six years old when entering kindergarten. In his book Yardsticks, author Chip Wood advises educators and parents to understand not just the educational and developmental needs of one given age, say six years old for a first grader, but rather of all three ages that may exist in any given grade as even a single school age child will pass through many developmental stages throughout the course of a year. A typical kindergarten classroom does not contain only five year olds. Today's kindergarten class may be comprised of several children not yet five, some five year olds, and some six year olds. Similarly, it is not uncommon for a second grade classroom to start the year with children as young as six, (usually fall birthdays soon to turn seven), seven year olds, and some eight year olds (often children with late summer birthdays whose parents chose to keep them out an extra year)
The Four Year Old: Ready for School?
Some children, due to late summer or early fall birthdays, may actually start kindergarten at four years old. Often, parents are left wondering, do I send my child when the district says they can begin or do I wait another year. Determining whether a "not quite five year old" is developmentally ready for school can be difficult, especially if the parent or teacher is comparing the child to five and six year olds. While similar to their older classmates, four year olds are still in an earlier developmental stage, and knowing what to expect; socially, cognitively and physically, may help parents with the decision of whether to start their child's formal education and will undoubtedly help the teacher better understand their student.
While children don't magically change on their birthdays there are some general developmental changes more typical for four year olds. Socially, a four year-old may love being surrounded by friends but is still more likely to play "near" them than "with" them. Four year-olds love to feel important, and jobs like "line leader" or "paper passer" are tasks a teacher can use to nurture their developing confidence. Physically, a four year-old may still have awkward small motor skills making writing difficult. A four year old needs lots of movement and is unlikely to be able to sit for long periods so should be given plenty of opportunities to move around.
Five: The Average Kindergartener
Many five year-olds are rule followers and will like the structure that a well organized kindergarten classroom provides, but don't be surprised if your five year old begins to test the rules as the year progresses. Five year olds are starting to learn just how much they can get away with so consistency in rules and consequences is important. Though still developing, five year-olds may have better control over small and gross motor tasks. Five year-olds still need lots of activity, and should be given opportunities to move throughout the classroom. Though many are beginning to read, most five year-olds still read one word at a time and reversals, especially of similar letters like "b" and "d" are common.
Six: The Older Kindergartener or Young First Grader
Six year olds can be found in kindergarten or first grade depending on their birthdays. Socially, expect the six year-old to be more developed than younger kindergarten students and more savvy of the "social rules" At this age many children are beginning to have close friendships and even "best friends". Six year-olds can be very sensitive and may become upset quickly if they make a mistake or feel they haven't done as well as others. Although the six year-old still needs a lot of opportunities for movement and changes in activity, growth spurts can cause tiredness and crankiness. Down time is important for six year-olds to re-energize. Don't expect your six-year-old first grader to be more "mature" than the six-year-old kindergartener. While they may have been exposed to more, academically, grade placement alone is not going to determine developmental growth.
Getting Ready for School
While educators understand that the school age child's developmental stages will vary, there are certain skills most kindergarten teachers recommend a child has acquired before entering school. These are:
- speaking in complete sentences
- shares with others
- identifies some alphabet letters
- counts to ten
- can pay attention for short periods of time
- listens to stories
- can leave parent without crying
- follows rules
First graders will likely have more developed academic skills, as they have been exposed to more structured learning activities. The major difference between the two grades, for many, is the transition from a half-day program, which is what many districts offer, to the full day learning expected in first grade. Parents and teachers should conference to determine if a younger kindergartener is ready for a full academic day or if they might benefit from moving into a full day kindergarten class first.
Wood, Chip. Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Aged 4-14. Northeast Foundation for Children. 2--7
Much of the information contained in this article is based on the author's experience as a parent of two and an elementary school guidance counselor