April 5 is a big day for thousands of youngsters in Loudoun County.
It’s the day 4, 5 and 6 year olds—more than 5,400 of them—are expected to register for kindergarten in the public school system. But a surprising number of those little tykes’ parents—in particular those with sons with fall birthdays—are still deliberating whether they’ll be in line at their nearby elementary school that day.
The decision whether to enroll a child with a fall birthday is a huge one, parents say. They either enroll their children on time and risk having them being nearly a full year behind many of their classmates developmentally, or hold them back a year in hopes they’ll start their academic career with an advantage, a concept called red-shirting.
Matthew Cleary is a walking, talking illustration of the kindergarten red-shirting debate. Now a curious and energetic 7-year-old first-grader, his parents enrolled him in kindergarten just before his fifth birthday on Sept. 24. Four months later, they pulled him out and re-enrolled him in preschool.
“He couldn’t handle it,” Kami Cleary said. Instructors at his school, Middleburg Community Charter School, did everything they could to motivate Matthew, but he wasn’t mature enough. “I would get calls every day. He was acting out. He wouldn’t sit down. He didn’t want to do his work.”
One year later, Matthew returned to that same kindergarten classroom and quickly became a model student. He’s at the top of his class academically and socially. He enjoys his school work, his classmates, and his teacher. “It was night and day,” Cleary said. “It really is the gift of time.”
In Loudoun County, and most area public school systems, children must be 5 years old on or before Sept. 30 to enroll in kindergarten, and children are not required to attend school in Virginia until they are 6 years old.
Elaine Layman, supervisor of Loudoun County Public Schools elementary education, gives community presentations to help guide parents of rising kindergartners. When parents ask whether their child is ready for elementary school, she tells them to consider their social and emotional maturity over their academic prowess.
“That social and emotional readiness is the most important thing,” she said. “Can they answer a question? Can they take off their jacket, hang up their backpack? Can they sit and listen to a story? Can they take turns in a play situation?”
With those questions in mind, Layman has overseen a countywide effort to revise the kindergarten report card. In previous years, students did not receive a report card in the first marking period. But for the first time next school year, kindergartners will be graded on those soft skills, like following directions, asking for help and picking up on classroom routines.
“We don’t expect them to do all that on the first day, but after a while we want them to pick up on those things,” she said, and encourages parents to work on skills like this at home.
It’s their son’s social and emotional proficiency that has Sam and Letty Kayser considering enrolling their son Stephen in kindergarten next year. Stephen, a bashful and funny 4-year-old living in Round Hill, is just barely eligible to enter kindergarten this fall. He turns 5 on Sept. 29, the day before the cut-off date. But his parents want to give him one more year of a small pre-kindergarten class before he hits the big stage.
“Academically he is ready. But socially he’s not,” Letty Kayser said. She’s hoping that extra year will give him time to mature emotionally, improve his confidence, and be less confrontational.
Kayser, who works as an early childhood educator, advises parents to be honest about how their child does with empathy, relationship skills, and transitioning from one activity to another.
Social maturity, not necessary academic readiness, is what was on the minds of JD and Rebecca Norman when they decided to hold their oldest daughter back a year. Clara, a kind, smart 5-year-old who lives in Leesburg, was eligible for kindergarten for the current school year, but her parents decided to hold off.
“We could see even in a preschool classroom she was timid and more of a follower with her peers. Since holding her back, she truly has blossomed socially and is definitely the leader of the class now,” Rebecca Norman said. She’s now ready to enroll this fall. “We’ve always been told we may regret sending her to kindergarten on time, but we’d never regret giving her the gift of another year of preschool.”
Cleary will enroll another son, 5-year-old Nicholas, in kindergarten this fall, just a few weeks before his sixth birthday. “I tell my friends, instead of having a baseline age, it’s really about maturity. He’s totally ready.”
Families may also want to consider whether their child can forgo a nap. Unless funding for full-day kindergarten is ultimately cut, every kindergartner is slated to attend a six-hour academic day starting this fall.
Layman says there’s no need for parents to buy workbooks for their preschoolers to sharpen their academics ahead of kindergarten. She instead recommends families look for learning opportunities throughout the day. “Count sidewalk squares as you walk, read signs—it’s good for kids to see their parents engage in academic skills in everyday life.”
As far as when families should enroll their sons or daughters in kindergarten, Layman can only offer general guidance. “But in the end,” she said, “it’s a family decision.”
To register their child for kindergarten, families are asked to first pre-register online at lcps.org/page/187320 to schedule a time to register in person at their child’s future school. For more information, go to lcps.org/page/392.