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Is your child ready for kindergarten?

More maturity enhances the ability to learn

SHARE Is your child ready for kindergarten?

When Dina Ahrens took a close look at her son, Dylan, then 4, she wasn't at all sure he was ready to begin kindergarten.

Dylan, who was born in June, would be younger than most of the other children. He didn't like to sit, and didn't want to stay still. He wasn't grasping or retaining information, either, his mother said.

"He was just immature," Ahrens said.

Even though Dylan was age-eligible, Ahrens decided against enrolling him in kindergarten last fall. She opted instead to keep him in a junior kindergarten program at the Jewish Community Council for one more year.

The choice has been the right one for Dylan, who will be 6 when he starts public school kindergarten next fall.

"We are really satisfied with our decision," Ahrens said. "Now he's more than ready. He's more confident, he's able to focus and pay attention, far more than last year."

Increasingly, parents are finding an additional year of kindergarten to be an appealing option for their children, particularly when those children have late birthdays like Dylan.

In an age when parents are constantly pushing their kids to get ahead, some believe staying behind may be the best way to ultimately achieve the same goal. Most experts agree children not ready for kindergarten should not be pushed to enter school, and that waiting for children to mature before enrolling them in kindergarten can enhance their ability to learn and boost self-esteem in the long run.

"A child that is ready for school becomes a happy human being. The child that you put in school before they're ready has to deal with a lot of stresses because they're not ready," said Dr. Gail Gross, a Houston-based child-development expert and former educator in the Houston school district.

"They can't process the information the same way because they're immature, and this creates a lot of anxiety, anxiety for the child and ultimately for the parent."

So, when is a child ready for kindergarten? The answer varies, depending on whom you talk to.

While kindergarten teachers agree it is their job to work with the students regardless of where they are on the developmental spectrum, most believe maximizing the kindergarten year does require some level of readiness.

But the readiness that teachers are looking for is not competency in reading or math.

"It is much more important that he knows how to watch and listen than know his ABCs," said Karen McIntire, who has taught kindergarten for 11 years at Luther Jones Elementary School in Corpus Christi, Texas. "I can teach ABCs, but I can't teach much if they haven't learned to listen."

Sharing, working alone and with other children and solving problems with words instead of gestures are also signs of readiness for kindergarten, McIntire said.

"Kiddos who come in with those behaviors have a jump-start," McIntire said. "It's not an issue of intelligence. It's an issue of listening."

"For the most part, I would tell a parent to wait until they are ready to separate until they send their child to kindergarten and to be part of the process to help them separate," said Jody Johnston Pawel, author of "The Parent's Toolshop." "It's important how parents do that. If the child feels insecure, if they aren't confident, it's important that the parent handle that in an encouraging, accepting way. Try to normalize that for the child and explain that it's a new experience.

"Play school at home, practice whatever the skill it is they are feeling awkward about. Talk with the teacher and get suggestions."

Dawnica Owens' daughter, Lunden, 6, now in kindergarten, benefited from the junior kindergarten program at St. James Episcopal School, which allowed her time to adjust to a full day away from home. For the first semester, school ends at noon. The second semester extends until 2 p.m.

"What's another year?" Owens said. "Another year at home, another year to be with family and friends. I think they leave home real soon anyway."

Michele Silver's son, Kyle, 5, is currently in the junior kindergarten program at St. James and has learned to adjust to being away from home for the full day.

"That was a big step," Silver said. "He had never been in trouble before and instantly he was in trouble every afternoon. Now he's not doing that and has adjusted to staying until 2 p.m. I just think in every way, he's had time to grow up rather than been forced to grow up."