A Smarter Start

Your child is due to start kindergarten this fall. But is she really ready? Here’s why some parents decided to wait until next year.

My son, Ian, who will be five In November, is supposed to start kindergarten this fall. But since he’s smaller than his classmates in junior kindergarten, and less mature, my husband and I have decided to postpone his entrance until next year. Our decision is part of a trend among Canadian parents with kids born late in the year who are looking for ways to help their children succeed at school.

Research repeatedly shows an alarming gap between kids born at the beginning of the year compared to kids with later birth dates– who are more likely to fail, have a higher risk of requiring special education and obtain lower achievement scores in math, reading and writing. One recent Ontario study found that 42 percent of boys and 29 percent of girls born in December repeated a grade before grade 6.

The main reason younger kids struggle right from kindergarten is their smaller vocabulary, says Andy Biemiller, a vocabulary expert. Biemiller, who is cochair of the master’s program at the Ontario Institute of Child Studies in Toronto , recently had his research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. He says younger children start out with smaller vocabularies and fall further behind because their smaller vocabularies cause reading problems. Why? After Grade 2, once kids become literate, they acquire their vocabulary from reading, he explains. If, for instance, they’re already two grades behind in vocabulary, they’re only able to recognize words that are two grades below their grade level. “A bhotshot,” he says, “is about 2,000 words ahead (of the average reader) and the struggling reader is 2,000 words behind, and even that may be optimistic.”

When kids enter kindergarten in September, with a Dec. 31 cutoff, as they do in several provinces,  there will be some who are five years and eight months old and others who are four years and nine months old. The older kids will have almost 4,000 words in their vocabulary, while the four-year-olds have about 3,000 words. This is the equivalent of one grade level of vocabulary, which means younger kids are starting out already behind their older classmates. By Grade 3, the youngest kids still have, on average, about a year’s fewer words and perform one grade below their peers in the provincial tests in reading, writing and math.

What’s a parent to do?

All kids develop at their own rate. So while a late birthday may be a risk factor for some kids, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all children will struggle. As a parent, you know your child best and are in the best position to assess whether your child is ready to start school. You may also want to talk with other parents and with your child’s nursery school or day-care teachers to get their take on how your child is developing.

Dr. Maria Cantalini-Williams, who was a member of the writing team for the Ontario Kindergarten Program, says you need to observe several aspects of your child’s development carefully. She offers guidelines, suggesting your child is ready for school if she can do the following.

  1. Interact positively with peers. For example, can your child share, cooperate and take turns when he’s in nursery school or playing with friends?
  2. Follow instructions. Your child should be able to listen to others and pay attention, and then act accordingly. Watch how he manages this when he’s in a group, as he would in kindergarten.
  3. Attend to personal needs. As one of many in a classroom, your child needs to be able to use the toilet and be able to dress and undress independently.
  4. Focus. Your child should be capable of listening to a story for at least five minutes, and working alone at an activity.
  5. Express self verbally. Your child should be able to use words instead of actions, such as hitting, to express negative feelings, and be able to communicate needs and display emotions appropriately.

What about holding back?

If you feel your child would benefit from waiting a year before starting school, you’ll want to discuss this with your child’s kindergarten teacher and the school principal. Postponing the entrance of age-eligible children into kindergarten, to allow time for social, intellectual or physical growth (known as redshirting in the United States ), is dealt with differently across the country. For instance, Quebec has a September cutoff for entry and Albertahas a March cutoff.

Redshirting has become a dominant trend in the U.S. , where parents are often discouraged from sending younger kids to kindergarten before they actually turn five. The hope is that if kids startr school when they’re older, they will be able to handle the curriculum better, and produce higher test scores in later grades.

We don’t know the long-term effects of redshirting, and there are a couple of issues to consider. First, Cantalini-Williams reminds parents that since a child would go from being one of the youngest to the oldest, there may come a time when he or she is not challenged. There’s also the stigma, facing children as young as four who know they’re being held back. “Kids who are redshirted may be all right in school, but there will be situations in sports, such as hockey or soccer, in which kids play with others based on year of birth,” says Cantalini-Williams. “If they’re playing on a team based on age divisions,  they’ll be with kids in their birth year, but they’ll be one grade below. The children will have to explain why they’re not in the same grade as teammates.”

Another issue associated with redshirting is that it widens the age gap in kindergarten classes. Our son, Ian, will be six and in kindergarten with youngsters who are four and a half years old. Although we feel redshirting Ian could give him a better start in school, it’s not an ideal situation.

Helping kids succeed

To meet the diverse needs of both our younger and older kids, educators are looking at ways to improve a school’s ability to accommodate age differences. Many Canadian educators take the position that the system should accommodate the child. For example, extra support for younger students is a priority in Calgary ,  where kindergarten specialists, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists work with kids to  enhance speech and language development. “We have separate professional development days for kindergarten teachers, do writing with young children, visit classrooms, and provide a mentoring program for new teachers,” says Debbie Bailey, a kindergarten specialist for the Calgary Board of Education. “It’s my personal belief that we need to be ready for the kids. If children are eligible, it’s our job to be very accepting. Then we must provide a program to meet their needs.”

Douglas Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick , believes that, early on, we need to identify kids who are struggling academically and provide extra tutoring, even outside school hours. To some this may seem extreme, but Willms insists that the kids who fall offtrack need an extra 100 to 150 hours of instruction, over a period of six months to a year, to catch up.

“This costs money, says  Willms, “but the alternative—waiting until they fail in later grades—is much more expensive.” The extra instruction, he explains, is crucial from ages three to seven , when kids make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. “Our feeling is that a lot of schools take a ‘wait and fail’ approach. If a child is not learning to read by the end of grade two, teachers either fail the student or move the child on without extra help…Either way, the child is being failed”.

Does all this extra help make a difference? Cantalini-Williams says that while parents and teachers should support and monitor younger children, it is not possible to force development of certain skills and concepts. “Extra help does benefit younger children,” she says, “but there is always a relative age difference between young and old in some areas of development.”

What else can be done?

In some jurisdictions, educators are looking at broader changes. In Quebec , for example, schools are slowly adopting a two-year cycle for each grade or double grades, which Cantalini-Williams sees as a positive step. This means a child would enter school and be in a combined junior/senior kindergarten class for two years. She would then move to a combined grades 1 and 2 class, followed by a 3/4 class and so on. Students would be more able to achieve the grade expectations over a two-year cycle, teachers would keep half the class so there would be consistency, and there would be a two-year timeslot to cycle the curriculum. “There would also be leadership-follower roles,” explains Cantalini-Williams. “For half of their school life, when they’re in the upper grade of the class, younger kids could be leaders. In the present graded system, every child who is old is always old in a single grade and every child who is young is always young.” This solution may also help teachers focus more on the children in the class and not solely on the curriculum for the grade.

And farther afield, New Zealand has a much more flexible advancement process that is touted as an improvement. Children enter school the day they turn five, and are advanced when they’ve developed the skills necessary for success.  Kelvin Broad, a New Zealander who taught there for four years, explains: “When a child turns five he comes to school and quickly picks up the routine. The teacher determines when the child is ready to move to the next grade.” Children can remain in their “first year” for almost two years, if necessary. “I’ve had people ask if it’s hard to make this decision,” says Broad. “If you know your kids, it’s pretty simple.” And since the practice of holding back a child is much more accepted in New Zealand , neither the child nor the teacher feel stigmatized by it.

n that way, a student moves into her second year once she is ready, then moves on to the next year or grade together with the rest of the class at the beginning of the school year. Broad, who now teaches education at the University of Victoria and works on the Alberta Commission on Learning developing multimedia learning resources for kindergarten to Grade 3, thinks the New Zealand system serves teachers and children better than the one in Canada, mainly because the move is based on the child’s unique developmental process rather than how the school year is organized.

Cantalini-Williams agrees that the New Zealand system begins to recognize age differences. “We should be measuring growth and learning as opposed to achievement expected by grade,” she says. “Each set of skills, for example writing, should be on a continuum where we can plot a child and show the change and learning over time. Height and weight charts are based on age, not on grade. We should do that with all developmental skills. Of course, we still need to recognize norms for each age and stage of development.”

Ready…or Not?

A recent study by Andy Biemiller, cochair of the master’s program at the Ontario Institute for Child Studies in Toronto , and Maria Cantalini-Williams, a professor of education  at Nipissing University in North Bay , Ont., looked at the scores of 34,000 Grade 3 children who participated in common provincial tests on reading, writing and arithmetic. Their findings showed that the scores were significantly lower for younger children, especially boys. This coincides with their earlier research that found that 42 per cent of boys and 29 per cent of girls born in December repeated a grade before Grade 6. The average failure rate before Grade 6 was 11 percent for boys and six per cent for girls born between January and June.

“I think it’s a case of age discrimination,” says Cantalini-Williams, who believes younger kids are penalized because of their date of birth. “We need to recognize age differences instead of only evaluating achievement based on grade-level expectations.” This trend, for younger kids to perform below the expectations of their grade, sets a pattern early in life with these kids losing confidence and performing even more poorly. In high school, Biemiller says kids with the highest vocabularies are two grades ahead of their peers, while the kids with the lowest are two grades below, with a much poorer reading comprehension.  So a 1,000-word vocabulary gap in kindergarten can put a child two and four grades below his peers by high school.

The most vulnerable of the youngest kids include boys, minorities and children from  low-income families. Douglas Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick , says that boys are more likely than girls to have below-average vocabulary development and pre-reading skills when they enter kindergarten. Low-income and minority children begin school on average with lower academic skills than kids from middle- and upper-income families, so younger ones are twice as disadvantaged with smaller vocabularies.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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