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Tough choice: preschool or kindergarten

Some kids may need more time to mature before start of school

SHARE Tough choice: preschool or kindergarten

Chase Olsen is going to kindergarten. He has a new shirt and jeans with "first-day" socks. He won't be taking his Pokémon cards, but he will be carrying a new Pokémon backpack. That's nearly as good.

Chase and hundreds of other children will be entering an uncharted new world this month. But for Chase, who is already 6 years old, it is a special time; he's really ready to begin school.

He could have started kindergarten last year, said Chase's parents, Mark and Christy Olsen, but he would have been the youngest in the class, being 5 by only a few days. "He seemed so young. We watched other children, especially boys, in the neighborhood who were the youngest in their classes, and many were struggling academically. We wondered about waiting for another year for Chase to begin kindergarten. We talked to other parents and to teachers. There was a lot of encouragement to wait."

Chase had been a small-for-his-age, shy 5-year-old who was restless and didn't especially enjoy books and story time. He seldom chose small-muscle activities like coloring or using scissors. Socially, he didn't spontaneously join with friends in play, and his communication skills too often ended in tears and striking out.

Instead of starting kindergarten, Chase's parents enrolled him in a preschool class where he was given the opportunity to play with others, sort out the idea of taking turns, follow directions, go on short field trips and pass out juice and midday snacks.

It was a year of "learning to color within the lines."

Now Chase has met his kindergarten teacher, knows the other children in the car pool and can write his name. He plays often with friends and was an active part of a neighborhood drama group. He knows the alphabet and recognizes a few words (particularly from the Pokémon cards), can count over 100 and loves to figure things out on the computer.

"There's no comparison in Chase from where he was a year ago," said Christy Olsen. Former Utahns, the family now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. "He's a confident little boy who eagerly looks forward to the first day of school. We're so glad we waited!"

Cheryl Wright, director of the Child and Development Center at the University of Utah, agrees some children will benefit from a year of waiting before starting school. "It can make a big difference in their confidence. Some children are mature enough at 5 to begin the structure of a classroom, others simply are not. If a child can't sit and be involved for at least 30 minutes and lacks well-developed listening skills, they probably should wait. However, each child should be considered on his own merits. It's a very individual decision."

Wright said the self-fulfilling prophesy of "early labeling" can be damaging. A child who is not able to keep up academically may be classified as a slow learner or unresponsive. Those labels may carry through the entire school experience.

"Above all," said Wright, "we want them to have a positive early experience with school, whenever they do start."

However, some studies disagree, saying the "holdout phenomenon" of waiting the extra year before kindergarten was not justified by school success in the long run. They suggest that older children in a kindergarten class became bored and less motivated.

On the other hand, an alarmingly high rate of children failing and repeating kindergarten because of their immaturity has given rise to statistics showing that children who are held back may perform less well academically in the future.

A middle ground is suggested by Louise Bates Ames, director of the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, Conn., who says the important thing is not chronological age but behavioral age. How children act is more important than how old they are, simply because no two children mature at the same rate or reach the same stage of development at the same time. "Your bright 4-year-old may be socially ready for kindergarten. His physical coordination may be fully capable of dealing with paper work. His attention span may keep him busy, but another equally bright 4-year-old may not have attained such development. It means that they are two different human beings, each developing at his or her own rate."

Laurie Cragun, kindergarten teacher at Cottonwood Elementary, Granite District, agreed that "readiness to learn" depends on the individual child. "Some children beginning kindergarten can run, jump, skip and ride their bikes while others, at the same age, are still having trouble walking across a classroom without bumping into everything."

She said some children could probably attend all day while others, especially in an afternoon kindergarten, have not yet been weaned from their afternoon nap time.

Cragun listed other signs that indicate readiness:

Willingness to participate in group play and a sustained attention span. Most children have had a one-on-one experience in the home, and learning to share the time with peers is an important adjustment in kindergarten.

Ability to care for their own needs. It is helpful if children can button, zip, tie shoes and pull on boots and mittens. They should to be able to get a drink, clean up their work space, take care of their possessions and handle their own toilet needs.

Having some academic skills: Knowing their own first and last names, addresses, phone numbers and other siblings in the school gives confidence to children away from home alone for the first time.

Children have a head start when they can write a few words, are familiar with the ABCs, colors, shapes and numbers and have developed pencil and scissor skills. If children can follow directions and answer questions (even ask them!) they will make good gains. Speaking fluently in complete sentences and thoughts is beneficial. (Language deficiencies are seen by teachers nationwide as the most serious problem of beginning students.)

Familiarity with "book learning." When children can listen to a book, tell some stories and "read" a picture book, they are ready to begin reading words on their own. "On the first day, I can tell if the parents have read to the child in the home. They are the ones eager to listen to a book," Cragun said.

Displaying emotional maturity. Separation is hard for some children. If they can stay after parents leave them at the classroom door or refrain from brooding over an older sibling in another class, they are more likely to have a pleasant day.

It is helpful if children have learned language without "baby talk" and can leave thumb-sucking and security blankets behind. Children with these habits may not be accepted by playmates.

Cragun also had some suggestions for the first day:

Each child can benefit from having his or her own bag or backpack, with name attached plainly, to carry items back and forth.

Snacks or no snacks? Check with the school before sending them.

Dress the child in cool, comfortable clothes, including shoes that will withstand playing and kicking balls outside. Tight, fussy clothes create too much tension for the first day.

E-MAIL: marilou.Sorensen@worldnet