It was the first day of kindergarten when little Molly's parents noticed something was drastically wrong. Their daughter had a very short attention span. She didn't participate in activities. She wasn't interacting with other children.
At 4 years and 10 months, Molly was the youngest child in her class (although California law allows children to be as young as 4 years and 9 months when they start kindergarten in September). That meant that sitting in Molly's class--either because they missed the cutoff by a few weeks or because of parental preference--were children a year or more older. After hours of anguish, Molly's parents made a difficult decision: At the end of the week, they withdrew her from school.
Molly's story is one of success. A year later and more mature, a more outgoing Molly entered kindergarten. Her positive kindergarten experience launched an outstanding academic career. Today at 15, a freshman at Sacramento's Rio Americano High School, Molly participates in a program for gifted and talented students and is a star soccer player.
Molly is the daughter of State Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) and his wife, Diane. "I can't remember anything in either of our daughter's lives we agonized over more than that decision," the legislator said. "My own mother thought we were wrong," he added.
It is spring. In California, about 380,000 parents of preschoolers are choosing kindergartens for September. Few parents realize, however, that kindergarten is one of the most crucial decisions to be made in a child's educational future. Moreover, a growing number of experts agree that the single most important determinant of academic success may not be which school or what program, but rather, as in Molly Johnson's case, the age and readiness of the child entering kindergarten.
"Kindergarten is a critical time in a child's life, with lifelong kickbacks. If we mess up and start children before they are ready, we are really doing damage to a lot of kids," said David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center in Medford, Mass.
In the last 20 years, changes in society have altered the face of kindergarten. Parents who remember an idyllic experience of playing with clay, singing "Old MacDonald," eating graham crackers and napping may be shocked to learn the old days have vanished. Today, many kindergartens look more like what first grade used to be, with children expected to sit, write their names, learn to read and fill out work sheets.
Despite the trend toward academics, many states, California included, haven't significantly changed minimum-age entrance requirements. Noting that six months makes a marked difference in a young child's development, some educators favor raising the school entrance requirement. But last year, a bill authored by state Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara), that would have changed the minimum age to 5 years, died in the Ways and Means Committee.
The question of who is ready for school has become a hot topic. Recently, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig convened a Task Force on School Readiness to recommend guidelines.
Although some younger children may be ready for the more rigorous curriculum, educators worry that most are not.
Age Is Important
Research is confirming what teachers have long noticed: Many younger children don't do as well in the more academic setting as their older classmates. "I can walk into a classroom, without knowing birth dates, and I can tell you who is younger," said Ann Tell, a kindergarten teacher at Arlington Heights Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Younger children who aren't ready are more likely to fail. When studying an elementary school, James K. Uphoff, professor of education at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, found that 23% of the children with birthdays between June and October comprised 75% of the school's failure population. Uphoff concluded that not only were the unready younger children more likely to fail at least one grade, but that they had academic problems often lasting throughout school careers and sometimes into adulthood.
At issue is how young children learn. Siegfried Englemann, professor of education at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and author of "Give Your Child a Superior Mind," believes in formal instruction in reading, basic language, arithmetic and logical reasoning in preschool and kindergarten. "There is a great deal of data to suggest that structured academic work does produce gains and these gains are potentially retained over a long period of time," he said.
Many early childhood experts oppose that notion. Noting that young children are naturally curious, the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, a Washington professional organization, thinks kindergarten should be a time of spontaneous, self-directed learning fostered by activities such as building with blocks, listening to stories, planting a garden and working puzzles.