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The Right Age to Start Kindergarten

Is there any question more fraught than what age kids should start kindergarten? Yes, probably. But not this time of year. Parents of children born between June and January have to face it at least once in their lives — is this the year we send Junior off to kindergarten or should we red-shirt and pack him off when he’s older?

I never thought I’d get caught up in this discussion — my two daughters were born in the safe and unambiguous month of March — but then I had my son. Early December. What to do, what to do.

We live in California, which has some of the youngest kindergarteners in the nation, thanks to its age of entrance cut-off date of Dec. 2. Nearly one quarter of California kindergartners start school at 4. A bill in the Legislature could change the cut-off date to Sept. 1, and bring California in line with most of the rest of the country.

And make my decision for me.

The age at which a child in the U.S. is old enough to start kindergarten is left up to the state, though some state’s allow each district to decide (some of those districts let schools decide and some of the schools let parents decide!). But for most, a child has to be 5 by September 1, though a few states and districts stretch it out to October 16.

Fewer than 10 states, including heavily populated New York and California, push it even later into December and in a couple of places to Jan. 1. When you start going that late, you wind up with the potential for an 18-month age difference between the oldest and youngest.

Which, that could be a little daunting for some, couldn’t it?

Now, I’d love to think this bill in California has children’s best interests in mind. It’s actually a strategy for reducing enrollment and saving the state money. And it also introduces a problem for parents with those August to December babies. A whole extra year of preschool expenses, a scramble to find space in an developmentally appropriate program.

The problem, though, with the very, very young is that the nation’s education standards are really not meant for four-year-olds (they’re barely appropriate for five-year-olds — though I know your kid was so advance she was bored). With that in mind, pushing the entrance age to school is probably a favor the state would be doing for the kids (and teachers), though there’s actually no evidence that older kids do better (quite the opposite). It comes down, like so many things, to the individual child.

What’s your school’s age of entrance? Are you sweating out a red-shirt decision? Is your pipsqueak suffering with classmates that already shave?

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Photo: state.va.gov

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