Kindergarten is a big step up the education ladder for little learners. Once they’re prepared, able to be away from mom and dad for extended periods of time, are able to be around a group of kids and show some independence, they’re probably prime to start.
But why is kindergarten important?
Carrie Shrier, a Michigan State University Extension educator based in Howell, works on the organization’s early childhood development team. She notes researchers have found roughly 90 percent of the brain develops by age 5.
“Kindergarten is really setting the foundational skills for long-term success,” Shrier says. So much of what we learn in kindergarten applies to life beyond, including social skills like sharing and cooperating with others. Plus, those literacy and language basics are established.
That early groundwork is key. Shrier notes research indicates, “if kids aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, they’re significantly less likely to graduate from high school.”
And anymore, kindergarten isn’t just coloring pages, she says. “There’s a lot of learning that’s going on in the kindergarten years.”
Although kindergarten is not required for kids in the state of Michigan, enrollment is open to kids who turn 5 by Sept. 1 of that school year – and there’s an early entry option for those whose birthdays are before Dec. 1.
If it’s time to sign your small scholar up for kindergarten, read up on these tips for choosing a quality program.
1. Consider the type of school
“I think the first thing that parents need to think about is what are their needs in a school,” she says. “Is there a particular philosophy they’re looking for?” – be it Montessori, religious education, Waldorf or other.
“Many times a parent isn’t choosing a kindergarten,” Shrier says. In actuality, “they’re choosing an elementary school” – some place their child may continue schooling through subsequent grade levels.
2. Look at scheduling options
Parents should evaluate “whether they want a full- or half-day program – or even a partial week schedule,” Shrier adds.
There are plenty of scheduling options available, but know that the amount of learning will be the same whether your child attends half days or weeks and full days or weeks, Shrier adds. In this way, full days may allow for more flexibility and breaks throughout the school days.
Also in this vein: after-school care. Is it available on site? How much does it cost? How is the program structured? It’s worth looking into depending on your selected schedule.
3. Get a feel for the school
Shrier says parents should tour a potential school option and the kindergarten classroom while school is in session to get a feel for how it operates throughout the day.
“And, if not, being able to talk with the principal and talk with the teachers (and) visit the classrooms,” she adds. “Get that feeling for how school runs – what is the atmosphere at the school?”
Another great way to get acquainted with kindergarten? Attend a “kindergarten roundup” event held by your local school district, says Carol Tresik, regional resource director for Great Start to Quality at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
“That’s where a lot of your questions get answered. They’ll give you examples of what they’ll be talking about, what they’ll be teaching (and) how important it is as a step up to first grade.”
4. Look at the classroom
Observe the classroom environment. “We’ll talk sometimes about what a good kindergarten classroom should look like, and I think sometimes parents don’t know,” Shrier says. She notes parents should look for a place between child-directed and teacher-directed learning. “Ideally a minimum of large group activities” that require long-term sitting and listening, which can be difficult for young children. Is there time for recess? Is there a focus on social and emotional skill development? Are kids allowed any independence in the classroom?
“Looking for kindergarten classrooms that are developmentally appropriate,” she says.
Also, if there are behavioral issues in the classroom, how is discipline handled? What is the class size (and maybe the class sizes of the future grades to consider as kids grow at the school)? What extracurricular opportunities are offered to kids (Shrier says a balance of activities are encouraged)?
Tresik even proposes parents visit their child in the classroom after they begin kindergarten, just to see how they’re adjusting to the environment.
5. Do the research
Parents searching for more resources to better understand if their child is prepared for kindergarten can visit the United Way of Southeastern Michigan “Bib to Backpack” resource online, says Tresik, which has an “Ages and Stages” questionnaire to see how children are developing – plus many other early education resources for parents. The site’s main focus is to get kids ready for kindergarten, since “Is my child ready for kindergarten?” is always a big question.
Knowing where your child is at developmentally may just help direct your decision on where they go, too.
6. Talk to other parents
“Talk with people in your community,” she suggests. Do other parents recommend the school, and if not, why?
Keep in mind things can change, and experiences may differ.
“Parents have to do their due diligence and, again, just because one parent doesn’t like the school in the subdivision doesn’t mean another one won’t,” Tresik says.
Ultimately, it’s up to the parent to do a bit of legwork and decide what will work best for their child.