Ready or Not? Here Comes Kindergarten!

By Sunny Im-Wang, PsyD

Happy friends

Today’s parents likely remember kindergarten as a year they learned to share toys, separate from their caregivers, and sit on the floor for weekly show-and-tell sessions. They probably also learned the names of all the letters, as well as the sounds some of them make. As the standards for public school curriculum have become more and more rigorous across the country, however, five-year-olds are now expected to master a variety of literacy and arithmetic skills that were once not taught until first grade. Today, being “ready” for kindergarten means that a child already possesses the behavioral, emotional, and academic skills that they were once taught during this first crucial year of formal education.

Most children in the United States are eligible to enroll in kindergarten if their fifth birthdays occur before state-specific “cut-off” dates that typically fall sometime in the month of September (Saluja, G., et al., 2000). Some enter school after having attended a high-quality preschool with its own strong pre-academic curriculum, but some do not. Some children’s parents have been reading to them nightly since they were infants; some have not. Some children have been raised in a household with several siblings, or in a very large extended family. These children have more than likely learned to take turns, share, and socialize effectively with others. The “only child,” in contrast, might have had very little interaction with the world outside his or her parents. Despite these differences, all five-year-olds are all expected, more or less, to enter a formal education environment, sit quietly at a desk or table for an extended period of time, and listen attentively to a relative stranger as she or he teaches literacy and numeracy skills. Obviously, the playing field is not going to be level for each and every child.

Since kindergarten teachers are the ones who will be molding and shaping the minds of our budding students, it makes sense to ask them what characteristics they believe makes a child “ready” for kindergarten. Hains, et al. (1989) asked teachers almost two decades ago what characteristics made a child “ready” for kindergarten, and the following were deemed most important:

  • Being able to identify at least four colors
  • Being able to identify major body parts
  • Being able to respond to one’s first name
  • Being able to respond appropriately to essential warning words

A few years later, 75 percent of kindergarten teachers polled felt the top 3 “readiness” characteristics were for a child to be in good physical health, to have the ability to verbally communicate wants and needs, and to be curious and enthusiastic about participating in new activities (Heaviside & Farris, 1993). Fifty percent of the same group of teachers felt that behavioral control, empathy, and being able to take turns and share were also important skills for students to possess prior to entering kindergarten. Academic skills, such as holding a pencil, knowledge of the alphabet, and ability to count were ranked as less important “readiness” skills, both by teachers in these earlier studies as well as more recent ones (Dockett & Perry, 2003).

Parents can help foster these non-academic kindergarten readiness skills via the following guidelines and suggestions.

  • Have a structured, daily routine for your child, including morning wake-up times, meals, playtime, and naps.
  • Encourage your child to dress him or herself independently, as well as take care of his or her own needs in the bathroom.
  • Encourage your child to listen quietly while others are speaking.
  • Involve your child in activities with other children that require sharing, following rules, and/or taking turns.
  • Give your child the freedom to play by him or herself with minimal supervision from you, as long as he or she is in a safe environment.

While teachers might view academic skills as less essential to readiness for kindergarten, the bottom line is that in this era of increasing rigorous standards in public education, no child can be “too prepared” for kindergarten. It is therefore essential that parents engage in as many activities that promote academic readiness in reading and math as they can (Rafoth, et al, 2004). Most reading experts these days agree that developing a skill called phonological awareness is the most important predictor of later success with reading. Phonological awareness is the understanding of the way words sound, including identifying beginning and ending sounds in words as well as words that rhyme.

The following activities can help facilitate this skill, and can also be fun for children.

  • Read nursery rhymes.
  • Sing songs and clap your hands along with the rhythm.
  • Draw his or her attention to words that rhyme or “sound the same” in everyday life.
  • Play games where the object is to find items that begin or end with the same sounds.

The push for reading readiness tends to overshadow math skills during kindergarten; however, students are still generally expected to be able to verbally count, recognize numerals, and understand quantity.

The following activities are simple things parents can do with their children to get their minds ready for math:

  • Working with puzzles
  • Identifying basic shapes (circle, square, triangle, and rectangle)
  • Counting to 10, including counting objects (one-to-one correspondence)

Of course, many of these skills, both academic and nonacademic, are covered in preschool and daycare settings. Many large-scale research studies have shown that high-quality preschool experiences positively influence children’s kindergarten readiness. Parents who choose to enroll their children in preschool should look for the following characteristics when choosing a center:

  • Children stay engaged in a variety of hands-on activities throughout the day.
  • Children receive both individual attention and group instruction.
  • Children produce work that is frequently sent home or put on display in the classroom.
  • Children are allowed time outside for unstructured playtime.
  • Children are frequently exposed to pre-academic skills such as the alphabet, numbers, shapes, and colors.
  • Children are read to by their teachers daily.

Kindergarten is an important first year in a student’s educational career. These days students are expected to come to school ready to learn, and those who have been taught some of the skills discussed above will clearly be at an advantage over those who have not. Whether parents choose to enroll their child in a high-quality preschool or do the legwork themselves, it is certainly possible to get a child “school ready” prior to their first day of school.

© 2013 Sunny Im-Wang, PsyD
Dockett, S., & Perry, B.(2003). The transition to school: What’s important? Educational Leadership, 60(7), 30-33.
Hains, A. H., Fowler, S. A., Schwartz, I. S., Kottwitz, E., & Rosenhoetter, S.(1989). A comparison of preschool and kindergarten teacher expectations for school readiness. Early Childhood Research Quarterly,4, 75-88.
Heaviside, S., & Farris, S.(1993). Public school kindergarten teachers’ views on children’s readiness for school. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Rafoth, M.A., Buchenauer, E. L., Crissman, K. K., & Halko, J. L. (2004). School readiness – preparing children for kindergarten and beyond: Information for parents. NASP School and Home. Retrieved from
Ramey, S. L., Ramey, C. T., & Lanzi, R. G.(2004). The transition t school: Building on preschool foundations and preparing for lifelong learning. In E. Zigler & S. J. Styfco (Eds.), The Head Start Debtes. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Saluja, G., Scott-Little, C., & Clifford, R. M.(2000). Readiness for school: A survey of state    policies and definitions. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 2(2). Available at

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