Little kids, big decisions

Kindergarten: As it becomes more structured, parents must decide whether their 4- and 5-year-olds are mature enough or whether to keep them in preschool.

November 14, 2001|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In Howard County and across Maryland, kindergarten is not what it was when today's parents were in school, and some worry about whether the changes are good for younger children.

"Kindergarten is much more structured than it used to be," said Rolf Grafwallner, who helps oversee early education for the Maryland Department of Education. "There's a much greater degree of focus as it is aligned with the primary-grade curriculum."

"It used to be geared toward getting a child oriented to school and learning how to get along in a group," said Tracy Jones, facilitator of early-childhood instruction for the Howard County schools.

"Today, many children are being taught the kindergarten ardor in preschool settings. They are coming in knowing more."

Maryland children are required to start kindergarten the year they turn 5 unless parents get waivers. For children with birthdays from September to December, that could mean starting kindergarten at age 4.

Deciding whether to seek a level-of-maturity waiver is a tough call for some parents, concerned that their children might not be ready for kindergarten's increased social and intellectual challenges.

"Parents need to consider the whole child, not just their cognitive abilities," said Columbia child psychologist Saul Lieberman.

"A child should be able to express his needs to adults," said Stephanie Fanjul, who assesses student achievement for the National Education Association. "He should be able to listen to a story and sit still. He should be able to focus on a task and follow directions. And he should be able to get along with the other children without a lot of hitting and crying."

That's what Fulton mother Cheryl Bowley considered when her November-born son Tyler, now 6, was eligible for kindergarten last year.

"Academically, Tyler was probably ready to go," Bowley said. "But emotionally he just wasn't there. He wasn't able to resolve conflicts with the other kids. He would just break into tears."

Staff members at the Young School in Columbia, where Tyler was a preschooler, agreed.

"Tyler was frustrated easily," said Brenda Coggins, director of curriculum at the school. "If he had trouble writing his name, he would put the pencil down and cry."

Bowley thought another year of preschool would give Tyler time to mature. The Bowleys think it was the right decision. By midyear, Tyler was a leader in his group, Coggins said. He knew how to use words to resolve conflicts, his fine-motor skills improved, and he showed interest in early reading. Today, he is a happy kindergartner at Fulton Elementary School.

Parents should never assume that because their children are young, they should hold them back, said Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington.

The best advice is to follow the age-of-entry requirements, Willer said.

Age is not everything, Jones said. "Some parents are concerned that their child is not outgoing," she said. "They think another year of preschool will draw him out of his shell. But that could just be the child's personality. Another year of preschool may or may not help."

Some experts say a child who is not able to meet social and emotional standards should not be kept out of school.

"It's often helpful for an immature 4-year-old to be with more-mature 5- and 6-year-olds," said Gwen L. Martinsen, a Columbia pediatric psychologist. "He won't be conflictual in the same way. His less-mature behavior will drop out."

Howard County educators agree that kindergarten readiness is a personal decision.

"There is no perfect formula that determines when a child is ready for kindergarten," said Corita Oduyoye, principal of West Friendship Elementary School.

Educators would like children to have skills when they enter kindergarten.

"It would be nice if a child can count to 10," said Louis Chillemi, principal of Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia. "It helps if he knows his letters, colors and shapes. It's nice if he tries to write his name, hold scissors correctly and traces a line."

If parents have any doubt about school readiness, it is recommended that they visit the school.

"Meet the teacher and the principal," Chillemi said. "The subjects are presented in fun ways that the kids can digest. Many times, parents' fears are quieted when they see what school is really all about.

"Kindergarten is our first chance to impart a love of learning. We want a positive experience for the child and the parent. Our goal is to have children succeed."

The National Association for the Education of Young Children publishes a pamphlet, "Ready or Not: What Parents Should Know About School Readiness." To receive a free copy: 800-424-2460. A directory of nonpublic educational programs approved by Maryland from preschool through high school is published by the nonpublic school approval branch of the State Board of Education. To request a copy: 410-767-0933, or www.msde.state.md.us/nonpublic.

Getting ready

How to help prepare your child for kindergarten:

Read to your child every day from infancy.

Help your child to recognize the alphabet.

Help your child hear rhyming words.

Let your child scribble and tell you stories.

Talk to your child about what you see.

Set up a situation in which your child can ask questions and know that someone is listening.

Make time for your child.

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