A year ago, Lexa and Jake Hawkins spent weeks making a tough decision.

Their son, Caleb, was 4 and would turn 5 in August. They struggled to decide: should he start kindergarten in the fall, or should they wait a year, so he’d be 6 when he started?

“It was kind of agonizing,” Lexa Hawkins said. “We felt he was smart enough to go, but he was also small for his age.”

After consulting with preschool teachers and other parents of children with summer birthdays, they decided to hold Caleb back. He’d have an extra to grow and become a little more mature, two factors that were important to his parents.

We really didn’t want to send him to preschool for another year,” Lexa said, “but we felt, in the long run, it was best for him.”

What is the best age to start kindergarten?

As schools enter summer break, parents across the country wrestle with that decision in anticipation of fall registration. Will waiting until their child is 6 give him or her emotional, academic or athletic advantages? Or is it better to get the child on the educational path at age 5?

In Iowa, a child who turns 5 by Sept. 15 is eligible to go to kindergarten. Dr. Ray Sturdevant, a pediatrician at Prairie Pediatrics in Sioux City, said boys tend to mature later than girls, so if both have birthdays on Sept. 1, one would expect the girl to be more mature socially and able to handle that aspect of kindergarten.

But that’s no guarantee.

“Kids are going to mature in different rates at different stages,” Sturdevant said. “There’s no data which tells us directly what is the right thing to do. It’s an individual decision about individual children. From a parent’s standpoint, you have to do what you think is the most advantageous for your child, but it’s awfully subjective.

Educational trends are providing parents with at least some objectivity. Preschools are becoming more prevalent, and 5-year-olds are becoming better prepared to start kindergarten at that age.

I think more and more parents are taking advantage of preschool situations and now have a better idea if their child is ready for kindergarten,” said Mary Jo Salem, the Sioux City Community School District’s director of elementary education.

Many school districts, including Sioux City, also offer transitional kindergarten, a program for 5-year-olds who may not be ready for kindergarten. If the child excels right away, he or she can be moved up to kindergarten.

“I think our transitional kindergartens have really offered some opportunities for our parents,” Salem said.

For some families, economics plays a role. Sending a child to kindergarten cuts daycare costs. Diane Merchant, director of Apple Tree Preschool & Learning Center, at 3835 Indian Hills Drive, said that when the economy worsened four years ago, she saw more parents choose to enroll their 5-year-olds in kindergarten.

Merchant said most 5-year-olds she’s seen in her 27 years of experience are ready for kindergarten.

“I think one thing that’s important for parents to know, if they do send, don’t be afraid, if the child is struggling, to pull them or have them repeat kindergarten,” Merchant said.

And even if the child is a little behind, they usually adjust quickly, said Stacy Eldridge, director of Building Blocks Child Care and Preschool in Sergeant Bluff.

“Most kids, even if you feel they’re a little young to start kindergarten, they usually seem to catch up at some point,” Eldridge said.

Because it’s nearly impossible to predict how well a 5- or 6-year-old will perform academically or athletically in the future, Dr. Sturdevant said, parents should look at their family histories for an indication about how their child might do in kindergarten.

Chances are, he or she will do fine if starting at age 5, Sturdevant said.

“I think 90 percent of kids are going to be ready for school by their fifth birthday,” he said.

By Nick Hytrek

Source: Sioux City Journal – http://goo.gl/65HbD