How can we assess whether or not our child is ready to start school? Can you suggest any basic guidelines?

This question has become more significant than ever over the past several years. This is due in large part to external factors that have relatively little to do with you or your child. It’s primarily an issue of public policy. Government is demanding that schools meet higher standards than ever before. As a result, beginning kindergarten students are now often expected to learn material that used to be taught in the first grade. You may or may not be able to do anything about this, but it helps to be aware of it.

How do we define school readiness? Generally speaking, this term refers to the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills a child needs in order to learn, work, and function successfully in school. It’s a question of being prepared to make the transition from home and family to a social environment where education is the primary emphasis.

In our experience, parents don’t usually raise questions about school readiness unless they have specific concerns about their child’s behavior or level of maturity. If you fall into this category, our initial suggestion would be to hold off on schooling until the problem can be resolved. If you have the means and flexibility, you can always homeschool for a year or two until you feel more confident about your child’s ability to launch out into the larger world. Notice that we’ve called this an “initial suggestion.” It’s anything but the final word on the subject.

School readiness is a complicated issue. Without more detailed information we can’t provide a definitive answer to your question. Nor are we in a position to tell you exactly how you ought to proceed. Every child is unique. Every situation needs to be evaluated in light of its own special features and circumstances. Since you know your child better than anyone else, you are the best person to determine whether and when he’s ready to take on the challenge of formal schooling. Here’s a basic checklist of questions you can ask as you try to make that assessment:

  • Is your child enthusiastic about starting school? Is he eager to learn? Does he show early signs of Achievement Motivation – motivated to do well (Asset #23)?
  • Does he demonstrate a desire to be independent? Can he dress himself, tie his own shoes, use the bathroom on his own, and work independently with supervision?
  • Does he have the basic language skills he’ll need to succeed in school? Does he speak in full sentences? Can he understand and follow simple instructions? Is he able to identify sound units in words and recognize rhyme?
  • What about basic academic knowledge? Does he know his numbers and his ABCs? Can he identify primary colors and basic shapes? Can he write his own name and recite his own personal information? If not, could he be taught to do so?
  • Has he mastered simple motor skills, such as throwing a ball, skipping, or climbing (gross), or working with puzzles, scissors, and paints (fine)?
  • Is he capable of controlling his behavior and demonstrating acceptable social skills? Can he play and work with others, to follow rules, and sit still for up to 30 minutes at a time?
  • Does he exhibit Interpersonal Competence (Asset #33) – the ability to show sympathy, sensitivity and friendship skills?
  • Is he developing an understanding of Cultural Competence (Asset #34) – which is identifiable by signs that he’s showing knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

It’s crucial to add that the concept of “school readiness” is a two‐way street. It applies to schools as well as to kids. In our view, it’s unfair to place the entire burden on the shoulders of the children. Teachers and administrators also have responsibilities. They have to prepare themselves to teach kids at their own level. They need to figure out ways to meet each child’s individual needs. Teaching is not about stamping students out of a predetermined mold designed to fit a prescribed set of skills and abilities.

Any truly helpful assessment of school readiness has to take into account the uniqueness of each child’s early life experiences. School expectations and healthy school boundaries (Asset #12) need to be respectful of those individual differences. They should also place an appropriate amount of emphasis on the role of the family and the community (Asset #4: Caring Neighborhood) in preparing kids for the challenges that lie ahead.

To put it another way, “school readiness” isn’t simply a matter of formal academic training. All of a child’s early experiences, whether at home, in childcare, or in organized preschool settings, are educational. If you have doubts or questions about your child’s readiness for formal schooling, there are a number of things you can do at home to optimize his chances of succeeding in the academic arena. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read books aloud with your child. Get him used to handling books and help him recognize the difference between pictures and print.
  • Engage in informal counting activities. This will strengthen your child’s understanding of numbers. Familiarize him with the alphabet.
  • Develop reading readiness by promoting your child’s phonological awareness. You can do this by reading nursery rhymes, singing and clapping along with songs, and playing games with rhyming words.
  • Spend time talking, playing, and cuddling with your child. Use these times to be intentional about developing positive family communication (Asset #2) ‐ taking steps to stimulate informal conversation. Give him opportunities to ask lots of questions. Encourage play that promotes creativity, imagination, planning and decision making (Asset #32).
  • If your child has trouble sitting still, practice having him concentrate on a task for a short period of time (ten minutes). Over several months, increase that time until he can remain focused for 30 minutes or so. 
  • Create and maintain a regular routine in your home (Asset #20: Time at Home). Emphasize mealtimes, naptimes, bedtime, etc. Help your child to become comfortable with this rhythm. 
  • Encourage behaviors and activities that develop a sense of responsibility (Asset #30) in your child (e.g., simple chores) and that demonstrate respect and courtesy. 
  • Look for opportunities to develop your child’s social competencies (Asset Category #7) through playgroups or more formal preschool activities.