After a particularly difficult phone call, where I had to explain to lovely parents that their bright son is not ready for kindergarten, I need a little therapy, so I spend an hour in kindergarten. I am reminded that typical kindergarten students are not perfect. They wiggle, they giggle, they talk, they forget to raise their hands, and forget to be quiet when the teacher is talking. They are also enthusiastic and full of ideas. They love to solve problems and help each other. They are clear about what is and isn’t fair, they tell you exactly what they think, and kindergarteners give great hugs.
So what makes them ready for kindergarten, when this bright little guy is not? This is the questions that Lower School Admissions professionals like me can usually answer after spending a morning with a child. It is helpful to think about three areas: fine motor, focus, and friendship.
First, a kindergarten applicant needs to willingly tackle pencil and paper skills such as writing his name, writing numbers from one to ten, and drawing a picture of a person. Cutting and coloring are also great measures of fine motor skills. In this ‘tap and swipe’ era of cell phones and tablets, we like to see children who are happy to squish clay and eager to scoop mancala stones without hesitation.
Focus is equally important, and every independent school in Baltimore measures this differently. At St. Paul’s School, we work with each kindergarten applicant individually to assess focus. We start by having applicants identify familiar items by looking at pictures. We move on to abstract concepts and cover a wide range of topics. What has the child been exposed to? What has she retained? And how detailed and articulate are her answers? We look for knowledge of the world, and more importantly, we look for a child’s ability to stick with the assessment.
Then there is friendship. I often find myself describing a kindergarten applicant as “a good friend in the classroom.” This is really important! Kindness, cooperation, and respect are critical components of being a good friend. We learn these things from what is modeled at home by parents and siblings, we learn them at pre-school from teachers and caregivers, and we sometimes learn them from the back seat of the car in heavy traffic. Character counts, even when we think no one is looking or listening!
Back to the bright little boy who isn’t ready for kindergarten. He is a very good friend in the classroom, his fine motor skills are improving thanks to a little help from an Occupational Therapist, but his focus is not where it needs to be to predict success in kindergarten. I can hope that his parents will take my advice to heart and explore the sources of this little guy’s distractibility and impulsive behavior, since it is getting in the way of his learning. With the appropriate interventions at this early stage, he will have all the tools he needs to realize his full potential.