To Kindergarten or Not? That is the Question.

Our first baby was born in June, four weeks before his July due date. In the blink of an eye, we were faced with the question: Do we send him to kindergarten at 5 or wait another year until he’s 6? Maybe you’re facing the same question.

After 15 years working in elementary schools—and 20 years parenting that first baby, I offer here some things to consider as you are finding the right answer for your baby and your family.

Remember, there is no one good answer to the question. And you don’t need there to be.  You just need to figure out what option best meets the needs of your kiddo.

First, let’s think a little bit about kindergarten. Maybe you’re like me and attended kindergarten for only half a day. During those few short hours, we had a snack, went to recess, sang songs, and played with blocks. On one memorable day, a baby calf came to school and went to the bathroom right under Table 1!

Today’s kindergarten is more likely to be full-day and more focused on academics than play. The goal is for most students to know letters and sounds and to be reading by the end of the year.  If that sounds like your first-grade experience, you’re not wrong. According to William Stixrud (Ph.D.) and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, “what was once advanced work for a given grade level is now considered the norm, and children who struggle to keep up or just aren’t ready yet are considered deficient.”

Research shows that while school has changed dramatically, children are still the same.  Kids in 2025 (when pandemic babies will be ready for kindergarten) are no more fundamentally advanced than kids in 1925. Both groups are able to draw a square at the same age—about 4 ½. Stixrud and Johnson note that we now teach reading to 5-year-olds even though evidence shows it’s more efficient to teach children to read at age 7, and that any advantage gained by early reading washes out later in childhood.

Here are a few other factors to consider when deciding whether or not your child is ready for kindergarten:

  • Some families believe that it’s worth trying kindergarten earlier and repeating a grade if needed to catch up. Research suggests that retention has few academic benefits and several significant social and emotional downsides. You can read more about what schools have learned regarding retention here.
  • Once children are kindergarten eligible, they are not able to attend school district preschool programs. For children with developmental delays or disabilities, this may pose a big challenge. Talk with your school and district to find out if/how your child can receive special education services if you choose to wait for kindergarten. Our child was able to receive weekly speech services at our neighborhood school, but we had to provide transportation. For us, this was doable, but it isn’t for all families.
  • In her dissertation research, Dr. Suzanne Jones found that “redshirted students” showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than those who had not been redshirted. Her research also shows that students were happy with the decision their parents made, and those who were not redshirted wished they had been. My informal focus group of one college student found the same results.
  • Daycare is expensive. Starting kindergarten can be a big financial relief for families.
  • Though my own research is strictly anecdotal, I’ve heard many families over the years say they wish they had waited for kindergarten and have never known a family to regret the decision to wait.

As we were considering our options, we heard lots of advice from family and friends—much of it unsolicited! The best advice came from one of the teachers in Nick’s 4-year-old Sunday School class. The teacher, who was a varsity football coach and middle school educator, encouraged us to think not only about Nick’s readiness for kindergarten but also his future readiness for 6th grade and beyond. What if he’s the littlest kid in 8th grade? Another friend reminded us that waiting meant another year at home and sending a more mature person to college.

In the end, we decided to give our kiddo another year to mature before starting kindergarten and we’ve never regretted it. While that was a good decision for our family and our kid, it’s not the right one for everybody.

Beth is mom to a high school sophomore and a first year college student. After fourteen years as a professional writer and editor, she earned graduate degrees in counseling and play therapy. Now she exercises her creativity as a school counselor. Beth loves reading, especially mysteries.