When should kids start? The kindergarten debate for fall birthdays

Twins Brooke and Jacob Muscolino of Melville turned Twins Brooke and Jacob Muscolino of Melville turned 5 in early December. They'll start kindergarten in September. (Feb. 20, 2011) Photo Credit: Photo by Randee Daddona

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On the agenda for many Long Island parents this month: Kindergarten registration. Children turning 5 by December are supposed to report to their districts to sign up. And that causes a dilemma for some parents.

Parents whose children fall on the younger side of the equation - who won't turn 5 until October, November, even December - often struggle with the option of holding the children out of kindergarten an extra year.

"Much of these decisions are almost a gut feeling of the parent of whether the child can handle the rigors of a kindergarten class," says Steve Hartman, a psychologist in the Sachem school district.

Even experts disagree on a best course.

"There's never a downside as far as I can see. It's really giving the child an advantage," says Wendi Fischer, a psychologist for kindergarten through third grade in the Elwood school district. There's no stigma, she and others say.

But Doris Fromberg, professor of education at Hofstra University, argues that the most powerful brain development happens in the first half-dozen years, and if a child sits out, he or she might miss that opportunity for rich experiences. Gains from holding a child back usually disappear by second or third grade, other experts contend.

Fischer offers two caveats to her hold-them-back leanings. One, if the child has a lot of preschool classmates or neighborhood friends who will be starting, reconsider. You don't want him to wonder why he didn't start, too. And two, if the child is bigger than other kids his age.

Hartman agrees on the size issue: "Even the youngest child will be able to pick up on the obvious difference and say, 'Wow, that boy is huge' or, 'That girl is much bigger.' That could open a child up to ridicule."

Donna LaSpina, a special-education teacher at Charles Campagne Elementary School in Bethpage, also encourages parents of children with special needs not to hold them back because they will get language services and other support through the school system. "Early intervention is the best route with these children," she says.

Parents should look more at social, emotional and developmental readiness than at the academic piece, all child experts interviewed agree. In general, parents might look more closely at holding a boy back, many experts say. "Girls mature a lot faster than boys," Fischer says.

A small boy interested in sports might benefit from starting later, so he'd be more competitive for teams, Fischer says. "I would never keep a child back because of that," she says, but add it in with other factors.

A family also might have financial considerations. Holding a child out of public school could mean paying an extra year of child care.

Some experts say that being older in high school can be advantageous because it might engender more mature decisions.

If parents are still on the fence, routine kindergarten screening that goes along with registration will point out concerns. Districts such as Bethpage have a solution, says Angelita Cintado, principal of Charles Campagne Elementary School: Summer school to get children up to speed for kindergarten.

THEY WAITED

Tamar Muscolino of Melville has 5-year-old twins - a boy and a girl who were born Dec. 3. In her Half Hollow Hills School District, the cutoff birth date for beginning kindergarten is just a few weeks later - Dec. 31. If she started Brooke and Jacob on time, they would forever be among the youngest in their class.

"My daughter was so ready to go. She's Miss Social Butterfly," Muscolino says. But Jacob had speech and occupational therapy when he was 3, and was more socially reserved.

Muscolino and her husband, Jordan, wrestled with whether to hold the twins back a year. "We stayed up nights talking about it, changed our minds 20 times," she says. In the end, they kept their children in preschool. "It was the best decision I ever made," Muscolino says. Jacob's confidence grew and he blossomed, and now she feels sure he's ready to start kindergarten in September.

THEY WENT

Lisa Valentine's two children both have late-October birthdays. She says she never seriously considered holding either of them back from kindergarten because their preschool teachers never raised an issue indicating they wouldn't be ready. "My attitude was, 'Don't fix it if it's not broken,' " Valentine says.

Both kids were also tall for their ages - "off-the-charts tall," Valentine says. "If I kept them back, they'd be monsters." Shaye and Palmer are now 9 and 7 and doing great in the Huntington school district, she says. "They have no issues," Valentine says. "I feel like I did the right thing."

TO ASSESS KINDERGARTEN READINESS, ASK YOURSELF, "CAN HE OR SHE ..."

-Separate from parents?

-Work in a group with other children?

-Play cooperatively?

-Manage his internal emotional state - control tears or anger?

-Communicate his feelings in a sentence or two?

-Follow directions?

-Complete a two-step task? If you ask him to go to his room and bring down his green sweater, does he bring the wrong color? Or come back without one?

-Accept constructive criticism?

-Use the bathroom himself?

-Sit for a period of time?

-Hold scissors? Button a coat?

-Recognize letters?

-Recite numbers to 10?

-Write his name?

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WHERE ELSE TO LOOK FOR INPUT:

-Child's preschool teacher

-Family physician

-Gymnastic or other class teacher

-School principal at the elementary school

-Websites with kindergarten readiness quizzes, which include: Nickjr.com; covenanthome.com/kready.asp

Coming soon: Newsday's Family newsletter, for things to do with kids, events, more.

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