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Q: My daughter is right on the cutoff for entering Kindergarten. If she enters now, she will be the youngest person in her class, at age 4. Should I “red-shirt” her so that she spends an extra year in preschool before starting Kindergarten?

A: It’s a tough question, and one that many parents face. There are two main things to consider when deciding whether to enroll your child in school now or later: their social development and their academic development.

Socially speaking, there is a huge difference in the maturity of a child of 4 and a child of 5 or 6. This difference in maturity is most pronounced with young children, and gradually diminishes with age (there isn’t much difference between a 24 and a 26 year old). But it is still quite drastic in the early elementary years. Now, many kids might have a maturity more in accordance with a different age: I’ve seen many mature 4 year olds, and plenty of immature 6 year olds.

Even if your child is academically ready for school by the age of 4, she might not feel comfortable with the way that 6 year olds socialize. She might not share their interests, and might not want to play the same kinds of games.

Has she interacted with kids in the age group of the rest of her class? If she has, say, through summer camps, art classes, or preschool, note how she interacts with them. Is she comfortable being on their level? Or does she prefer to hang out with people of her own age?

If she is uncomfortable with older children, this will impact her happiness in the class environment. How it will play out specifically depends on the class dynamic. Some classes can be very mean, and actively exclude children they think are “different.” Other classes might be more understanding and welcoming to a student who is younger and less mature than they are. You might want to see if there is an age profile for the class, to see if there will be a few other students her age in the class.

Academically, there are two things that are expected of students entering Kindergarten. First, they should have basic familiarity with the material, or at least the ability to learn it once presented. This material includes understanding numbers, basic shapes, the alphabet, writing their name, and some basic knowledge of addition and subtraction. It’s OK if she doesn’t know all of this yet, but she will need to be able to learn it once it is taught in class. If she shows a lack of interest in learning the material, or gets stressed when presented with Kindergarten level academic challenges, she might not be ready for Kindergarten yet.

The second thing, which many young children find especially difficult, is the ability to function in a controlled environment with lots of rules. If she has been to preschool for a while, she probably has been asked to follow directions, to work together with other children, to stand in line, and to be quiet while the teacher is talking. However, if she has not spent a lot of time in a formal environment, learning all these skills at once can be overwhelming. Even a child that is well behaved at home can have a difficult time adapting to all the rules and expectations of school. However, if she is used to a formal environment, and can easily adapt to all the rules of being in school, she could be a good candidate for starting school now.

In short, the most successful young students are those who can interact well with older children, can understand the material presented in class, and can handle being in a structured classroom environment. If she has trouble with just one of those areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should hold her back. But if she has trouble in two or more of them, I would recommend giving her another year to build up the necessary skills. If she is proficient in all of them, then there’s no reason to keep her behind!

Whenever she does enter Kindergarten, make sure she views it as a positive, exciting new chapter in her life as a “big kid.” You can mentally prepare her by reading books like “The Night Before Kindergarten” and by going on a fun shopping trip to pick out her new backpack, notebooks, and other school supplies. If she’s nervous, let her know that you understand her feelings, and talk about times you were nervous too. Then, talk about how you focused on all the good things you had to look forward to, and all the wonderful things she will do in school, like learn to read and make fun crafts.