Respecting Readiness

Is your child “ready” for first grade? Is she “ready” to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic? If you attempt to answer this question by looking at her birth certificate and the calendar, you’re looking in the wrong direction. Chronological age and arbitrary cut-offs are completely irrelevant. The only thing that truly matters is your child’s individual rate and pattern of development.

What Parents Need to Know About Development

Cognitive development proceeds in distinct stages. The first generally covers the first two years of life. During this period, infants and toddlers deal with the world largely through the direct action of their senses and motor movements. They are physical rather than mental creatures. It takes a while for them to develop the capacity to capture information and experience in mental form, store it, organize it, retrieve it, and manipulate it in their minds. However, by two years of age, they are prepared to deal with the world by “using their heads.”

The second stage of cognitive development covers the next four to five years. And this is where things get tricky. While preschoolers are clearly thinking, they are not thinking clearly. Their first set of mental machinery has a lot of heavy duty limitations.

Young children may engage in some ridiculous behavior and may not be able to perform certain tasks, not because they are stupid or lazy, but simply because they have not yet developed the capacity to process information and experience the way older children and adults can.”

What Parents Need to Know About Maturity

One element of this mental immaturity is something referred to as centration or one-dimensional thinking. A preschooler cannot handle multi-dimensional problems. Show her a tall, thin glass of milk and a short, wide glass of milk, then ask her which one has more. She will point to the tall, thin glass because she knows that “high is more than low.” Now this is a smart kid. She also knows that “wide is more than narrow.” But in order to get the question right, that is, to realize that both glasses have the same amount, she would have to factor in both height and width at the same time. Her mind cannot do this. It can consider height or it can consider width, but it cannot deal with both height and width simultaneously.

Another element is something referred to as irreversibility. A preschooler can follow a progression in one direction, but the mind does not have a reverse gear at this point. Going back to the beginning is seen as a brand new problem rather than something she has already learned. Tell her that two plus three equals five. She will get that. Then ask her what five minus three equals. She will have no clue. She appreciated being told what the answer was the first time around and cannot understand why you won’t tell her what the answer is this time.

These are just a couple of examples of those heavy duty limitations. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that a child will not be able to deal with the complexities of reading, writing, and arithmetic until she has shed these limitations, moved on to the next stage, and developed the cognitive tools necessary to deal with those tasks. And the rate at which she advances is not totally dependent on the lessons she is given.

Your child’s unique, natural pattern of maturation plays a major part in determining her readiness for academic work, and that simply cannot be accelerated no matter what.”

Chronology Doesn’t Predict Success

Regrettably, it seems as if private industry understands this a lot better than our schools do. Have you ever been to Disneyland or Disney World? Ever been on Space Mountain? What does that little sign outside of Space Mountain say? You must be “this tall” to get on this ride. It doesn’t say you must be six years old. Why? Because the ride is designed and engineered to be safe and comfortable for people of a certain physical size. They know that rates and patterns of development are highly variable, especially during the early years. Not all children of the same age will be of the same size. And if your individual rate and pattern of development has not yet brought you to that size, the ride is going to be uncomfortable, even dangerous, for you and they are not going to let you get on.

Do you think our schools would do the same thing? Do you think they would assess each child’s rate and pattern of development to see if she has developed the cognitive tools necessary to deal with the academic tasks we are going to give her in first grade? No. They go strictly by chronological age. At six everyone is going to start. Not only that, but they have arbitrary calendar cut-offs.

So, I want you to imagine two children. One is born August 31, two minutes before midnight. The second is born September 1, two minutes after midnight. The children are born four minutes apart. But because of the way things are done, the first child starts school a whole year earlier than the second child. When she gets to school, she has all kinds of difficulties, and eventually she is diagnosed as “learning disabled” and shipped off to special education. Meanwhile, the second child gets another year to mature and have things come together, so when she gets to school she has no difficulties at all. Four minutes makes all the difference.

To make a wise choice about grade placement, is critical to ignore the calendar and respect each child’s individual readiness.”

The Consequences of Not Respecting Readiness

Regrettably, a lot of mothers and fathers are reluctant to do this. Our society is highly competitive, and parents are always comparing the progress of their child to that of other children. They feel that if their child does not start school at the standard time, she will “fall behind” her peers and they will be regarded as imperfect parents by family, friends, and neighbors. So, despite recommendations from their child’s kindergarten teacher and their own gut feelings, they push their child into first grade where she encounters nothing but frustration and failure, leading her to get totally turned off to learning and acquire an intense dislike for school.

Unbelievably, our schools seem unable to get it either. With so many first graders encountering failure and frustration these days, what is their solution? Start the kids working on academic tasks earlier so they will be better “prepared.” Whereas preschool used to be just that, “pre” school, it has now become “school” for all intents and purposes for most young children. And this has resulted in nothing but more and more frustration and failure for more and more kids.

It amazes and saddens me that no one seems to be taking a good look at what actually works. Which country’s school system do you think is having the most success when it comes to teaching children reading, writing, and arithmetic? Would you believe Finland of all places? And what is the secret to Finland’s success? They don’t put children into first grade until the age of seven. They allow all kids ample time to build foundations in play-based preschool programs and wait until it is reasonable to assume that all of them will have developed the cognitive tools necessary to deal effectively and enjoyably with those academic tasks.

Respecting your child’s readiness may not be easy since that is not “the way things are done.” But it definitely is the way things should be done in order to ensure her long-term happiness and success.”

After all, if your child was not yet “this tall,” you wouldn’t put her on Space Mountain knowing that it wouldn’t be any fun for her and might even get her seriously injured.

Development is not a race, it is a process that is unique to each individual.  Annapolis Christian Academy is committed to the success of every student and strives to follow the wisdom of “Respecting Readiness” in admissions, placement, and promotion.


What do you think?  What has been your experience?  Leave us a question or comment.


The following article by Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. first appeared in Pediatrics for Parents, volume 27 issue 3/4 (1 March 2011), pages 8-9.  K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. He received his doctorate in Human Development from Harvard University. He has authored three books, 30 booklets, and over 100 articles for both parents and professionals, and his regular columns have twice been awarded the first-prize citation from Parenting Publications of America and have been awarded a first-prize National Headliners award.