Early Entry into Kindergarten for Gifted Children

Gifted children are often ready to begin school at age four. They may be reading already or ready to read. They may be doing math problems, adding and subtracting in their heads. Although state laws require children to wait until they are at least 5 to enter kindergarten, individual schools can usually waive the requirement. Parents of pre-school age children wonder whether they should apply for a waiver and start their child in school early or wait till their child reaches the required age.
Parents will sometimes agonize over the decision, especially since most schools actively discourage the practice. Is early entry into school a good idea for gifted children? To answer that question, it is helpful to look at a little of the history of education and the arguments against and for early entry.

Current Status

History

In the 1800s, most children attended school in a one-room school house. One teacher was responsible for teaching 30 to 40 students, from the youngest to the oldest. Sometimes, the teacher taught the older, more advanced students, while these students in turn taught the younger ones. Students were expected to learn certain skills and facts (grade levels) and as they learned them, they moved on to the next skill or next set of facts that needed to be learned.

As laws were passed requiring students to attend school, schools became overcrowded. New and bigger schools had to be built, schools with more than one room.

Students had to be divided somehow for placement into the different rooms and the decision was made to divide them by age.

In general, the decision to use age as the basis for separating children into different classrooms was a valid one. After all, children at different ages tend to have different needs.

Initially, though, classrooms were multi-age classrooms, with grades 1 through 3 being together and grades 4 through 8 being together. Students were still generally able to move up as they mastered skills and concepts. Eventually, the number of students grew to the point where students were separated by age and placed into individual grade levels. It became much more difficult for children who have mastered the skills and knowledge to move to the next level as it now would require a move to a new classroom.

To ensure that all students had the best chance to succeed, minimum age requirements were set for entry into school. Since most children were considered ready for school by age 6 (kindergarten by 5), that became the minimum age. This age requirement was not made with gifted children in mind. Parents of gifted children may think their children are ready for school early, but worry about them being in a class full of older children and wonder what will happen later. They ask whether early entry into school is a good idea for their children.

Arguments Against

  1. Social and Emotional Maturity
    One of the most common arguments against early entry into kindergarten is that a four-year-old is not mature enough to start school. A kindergartner is expected to be able to pay attention to the teacher, follow directions, and obey rules, all of which requires a degree of maturity. Kindergartners are expected to sit and listen to stories, stay focused on a task, and understand the difference between work and play and know when each is appropriate. Social immaturity can make it difficult for a child to interact appropriately with other children.

  1. Physical Maturity
    Another argument against early admission to kindergarten is that a child may not be physically ready for school. Physical readiness includes gross and fine motor skill development as well as physical size. If a child starts school early, he or she may not have the fine motor skills to be able hold a pencil properly and write well. In addition, children who start school early and are smaller than the other children may encounter social problems, including teasing by the other children.

  2. Impact on Adolescence
    Several other arguments against early entrance revolve around the effects that that early admission will have on a child's life in high school. A child who starts school early will be the last to be eligible to drive and will not be mature enough when his or her classmates are dating. This can make a child feel like an outcast and a misfit. In addition, a child who starts school early may be unable to participate in sports due to small physical size. When other teens are going to camp or participating in other summer programs, a child who started school early may not meet age requirements and will not be able to attend or participate.

    Arguments For

    1. Social and Emotional Maturity
      Gifted children may be socially and emotionally mature enough to start school early. They often prefer the company of older children and frequently have fewer behavior problems when their classmates are older than they are.

    2. Physical Maturity
      Because of their asynchronous development, gifted children's physical development may lag behind their emotional and intellectual development. Waiting for their physical development to catch up can cause problems for them academically and socially. Also, gifted children are notorious for their poor handwriting. They can think faster than they write, which causes them to scribble things down as quickly as they can. That does not lead to neat handwriting. Waiting another year will not solve this problem. As for children's physical size, there is no guarantee that waiting an extra year will make the child grow any faster. Holding a child back an extra year might allow him to start out the same size as the older children, but they may outgrow him in a couple of years. (It's interesting to note that we don't grade skip a child who is big for his age even though his size can lead to teasing. In that case, the importance of academic needs is understood.)

    1. Impact on Adolescence
      Children, even the non-gifted ones, mature at different rates. A child who is the same age as his classmates may not be socially or emotionally mature enough to date. There is no way to know for sure if a child who starts early is any more or less ready than children who are a year older. As for driving, that is a parent's decision to make. Not all 16-year-olds drive, regardless of when they started school. Not all gifted children are interested in sports either, so making a decision for grade placement based on a possible future desire is not necessarily valid. Some sports, too, are not affected by physical size, track, for example.

    Resolution

    No easy resolution exists for this problem. The decision to put a child in school early is an agonizing one. Parents worry about which option will allow their child to fit in best with the other children. Unfortunately, neither is likely to be a perfect fit. If a child is not ready for school socially or emotionally, it can be difficult for the child to adjust.

    However, waiting that extra year can make the academic environment unbearable. In addition, even if a highly gifted child is socially, emotionally, and academically ready to start school early, the pace and depth of instruction still may be too slow and shallow.

    No answer is right for all gifted children. Parents need to consider their child's emotional and social maturity, but they need to consider it in terms of the child's chronological age. A gifted four-year-old may think like a six or seven-year-old, but have the emotions and social skills of a five year old. This can make them look too immature for school, when in fact they would fit in with the other five-year-olds, at least emotionally. Intellectually, they would still be ahead.

    How far ahead a gifted child is should also be considered. The more gifted a child is, the better off the child will be starting school early. In fact, the child might have to be advanced again at some point. Each year the child's progress should be monitored and placement reassessed.

    One of the most important things for parents to understand is that the evidence for early entry and other types of acceleration of gifted children is overwhelmingly positive. (See A Nation Deceived.) Virtually no evidence supports holding a highly gifted child back -- if he or she is socially and emotionally ready. As Shakespeare would say, though, "There's the rub." Determining whether a child is socially and emotionally ready is not always easy. Parents can talk with their child's preschool teacher and with their child's pediatrician for help with this evaluation.

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