by Nancy Garvey
Parents and teachers alike often are confused about a child’s readiness to enter First Grade. They question, “What is the value of keeping a six-year old in kindergarten another year?” Parents express concern that their child will fall behind if they do not move into first grade with their peers, classmates and friends. The placement decision is often a difficult one to make. There are many factors that are taken into consideration, but the primary concern is for the child’s overall well-being, not only for the following year, but for years to come.
Teachers at Waldorf schools tend to give children the “the gift of time” if there is any question or doubt about readiness to move into the grades. Teachers and parents discuss many aspects of a child’s readiness, including the child’s physical coordination, ability to play, capacity for appropriate communicate with adults and peers, energy level, developmental abilities, and inner strength and resilience.
Physical coordination is a factor because the child will need to sit at a desk for extended periods of time in the grades. Of course, physical coordination varies from child to child. However, if a child is not able to sit at a table without falling off the chair or needs to get up every few minutes, another year in kindergarten may be warranted to help the child develop and practice these skills.
Crossing the Midline
Another consideration is whether the child can cross their vertical midline. This is the imaginary line that separates our left and right sides of the body. A child who can not cross this barrier, uses their left eye to see or read what is on the left side of a page and then switches to using their right eye to see or read the right side of the paper or book. Another indicator that the ability to cross this barrier has not been mastered is when a child uses their left hand to write on the left half of a page and then switches to their right hand on the right half of the page. A child who is not readily able to cross this midline would struggle in class one.
Once, I met with with an entire family, including grandparents, to discuss the developmental importance of crossing this midline and the child’s inability to do so. The grandmother exclaimed, “That’s how I write. What’s wrong with that?” With all due respect, quite a bit if one considers unnecessarily going through life without the capacity to freely use one’s dominant hand. In this case, fortunately, the child stayed another year in the kindergarten and was able to work on crossing this imaginary barrier through the daily practical and imagination-based activities in the class including circle (which included gestures that crossed this midline), sewing, chopping vegetables, etc.
The Importance of Free-Play
Waldorf schools stress the importance of ‘free play.’ Free play is play that is not directly lead or organized by an adult or caregiver. In Waldorf schools, kindergartners direct their own play but free play is also supervised, and teachers model appropriate conflict resolution. Over time, the children learn these skills for themselves. This process takes time and dedication on the part of the adults who care for and teach young children. One needs only to think back to their childhood to realize how vitally important it is for children to engage in activities in which conflicts arise requiring children to settle disputes with one another. Free play is an essential learning tool that helps children learn to share and resolve differences in a healthy way. Play also helps foster an active imagination, which leads to problem-solving and creativity. Children who do not yet possess the ability to “create play” out of themselves and to work out conflicts with their friends may benefit from opportunities provided in the kindergarten setting for these skills to emerge.
A Child's Temperament
Children come into the world with a variety of temperaments. Some are dreamy and give a fairly clear indication that they are not ready for the rigors of first grade work. Others come with a high activity level that presents a challenging picture of them sitting at a desk at all, not to mention focusing on an activity for 30 minutes or more. I once had a child in my class whose mother questioned his readiness for first grade, even though he had a spring birthday and was technically age eligible to move into grade one. When we met, I asked her if she could picture her son sitting at a desk. She answered, “Definitely not! He would feel tortured without opportunities for inside and outside play throughout the day.” She and I decided he would be best served by waiting a year. This was the best decision for him. The following year his inner gesture or demeanor told us that he was now clearly ready to settle down and get to work.
Children Develop at Different Rates
Even though some children have turned six, and fit within an age guideline to be place in first grade, it does not necessarily signal that they are developmentally ready for rigors of the grades. This does not mean that they are less intelligent or that their parents have in any way failed them. Certainly, no parent should blame themself if, after the readiness assessment, the recommendation from the school is that the child would greatly benefit from another year in the kindergarten. Apples on a tree do not all ripen at the same instant; children develop and “ripen” at different rates, too. As Waldorf teachers, we have found through many years experience that it is far better to honor where a child developmentally is, than to push her or him forward. If pushed forward too early, a student may struggle academically and socially as they make their way through school, including through high school and even college. While parents often feel they are doing their child a disservice to not move them along with their peers, both empirical and observational experience says otherwise. Children who struggle to keep up often feel stressed and end up not liking school. From personal experience, when one of my sons was kept back in second grade he felt like he had failed. In reality, it was my husband and I who failed him by not adequately assessing his needs.
As adults we strive to reflect on all aspects of the developmental needs of the child. In questionable cases, erring on the side of caution is frequently a good idea. After all, what really is the hurry when the benefits of waiting are great?
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