Ask a Pediatrician: How Do I Know If My Child Is Ready for Kindergarten?

Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten: Overhead view of cheerful small boy playing with wooden toys at home.
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“How do I know if my child is ready for kindergarten? She's right on the cusp of the cutoff date and seems mature for her age emotionally, but she’s not interested in reading and can’t write her name yet. I'm worried that putting her there when she’s not ready means she will fall behind, but on the other hand, keeping her back could mean that she’ll get bored and not challenge herself. What should I do?” —Juliana, New Jersey

You are not alone! This is a common quandary among parents of 4- to 6-year-olds. Depending on where you live, your state’s laws may dictate school age requirements, as well as whether kindergarten is mandatory. Get familiar with those as you explore this issue. Furthermore, there are many developmental and practical factors to consider when making this decision. In the end, the important thing to remember is that there is no one right choice: your child is unique, and you should trust your instincts to pick the path right for them. But with that in mind, here are a few aspects to consider:

Basic Self-Care Abilities

One of the most important things to evaluate is your child’s ability to take reasonable care of themselves without constant direct supervision. This means activities like going to the bathroom, dressing and putting on shoes (not tying laces), eating a provided meal, and following straight-forward directions successfully. Kindergarten teachers and staff will certainly make accommodation for younger students, but there won’t always be an adult available to help your child one-on-one for the whole school day.

Emotional Readiness

Another crucial factor is your child’s emotional and social preparedness. Are they able to interact successfully with kids their age? Are they able to listen to and follow basic instructions? Can they sit still and engage in an activity for a short block of time? Do they know how to communicate confusion or ask for what they need? A lot of these skills will continue to develop in kindergarten with the help of teachers and support staff, but if your child is already demonstrating some of these behaviors, that’s a good sign that they are ready to start elementary school.

Academic Skills

When it comes to abilities like reading and writing, kids’ levels vary significantly at this age. Most kindergartens are prepared to differentiate instruction and activities to make your child’s experience right for them. It’s great if they are already starting to read and write, but don’t worry if they are not there yet!

Some other milestones that signify school readiness are: being able to recognize their name, use a writing utensil, and have determined hand dominance. If they can count to ten, name some colors, and know the alphabet, that’s even more reassuring that they are ready to start. As far as reading and writing go, however, children are not expected to be able to do either before starting kindergarten.  

Your Child’s Unique Needs

Some older children may have an advantage at the start of kindergarten over their younger peers, even simply due to being bigger in size, but this does not necessarily mean they will do better in the long run. There are lots of developmental opportunities built into kindergarten curricula that help children acclimate to school culture, so exposing them to this type of learning earlier might ensure a smoother transition. Depending on your child’s unique needs and traits, they might benefit from being challenged earlier on, or they might need some additional time to grow before plunging into formal academic life. Age is just a number; a 4-year-old might be ready for kindergarten, and a 5-year-old might still need time. You know your child best—trust your gut!  

When In Doubt—Consult!

And of course, if you’re still in need of guidance, your child’s pediatrician is always a great resource to talk to about your concerns. They, too, know your child, and they might offer some insights that you have not considered. Another great way of making this decision is reaching out to the kindergarten programs in your area and getting to know their processes. Take advantage of prospective student tours and meet-and-greets, which could give you a much better understanding of your child’s readiness.

My last bit of advice is a reminder that these decisions are not set in stone and pivoting mid-year or even repeating kindergarten is perfectly acceptable and part of the process: we need to meet our very young students where they are and support them individually every step of the way to ensure that they have the best chance at success that they can.

Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. 

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Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. She received her undergraduate degree at...