Kindergarten Readiness: The Elephant in the Room

By Jim Grant

Studies identify a chronological age effect that is the biggest factor in predicting school success: The chronically younger children in any grade are far more likely than older children in that grade to struggle. And it all begins in kindergarten.

Some five-year-olds are not developmentally ready for what they are required to do in today’s typical kindergarten structure. They are developmentally mismatched with their program or grade and are considered “overplaced.”

So, how does this happen and why? This article will explore the factors and circumstances that impact a child’s kindergarten readiness and future school success and signs of overplacement to watch out for in the classroom.

Why children are not ready

School organization in America is lock-step, time-bound and age-graded—and based on an outdated concept from the Industrial Revolution. Each of the 14 steps—from kindergarten through high school—is 180 days in length. Each day is 5.25 hours long. The problem? Some children don’t fit this traditional structure and are simply out of alignment in their present kindergarten placement.

These “fives” are simply not developmentally ready for kindergarten because of factors and circumstances that impact their growth and development. Theses may include:

  • A traumatic or difficult birth: This can be an indicator of problems to come. Long labor can result in reduced oxygen and/or nourishment for the child just before birth. Some studies have found birth trauma to be associated with later emotional problems.
  • Low birth weight (5.5 pounds or less): These babies are more likely to be retained-in-grade, have short attention spans and developmental delays, and fail school.
  • Exposure to toxic substances: Childhood exposure to harmful substances—such as lead, pesticides, and inhalants—can cause severe problems. These may include problems like birth defects, mental retardation, and impaired hearing—any one of which can lead to poor school performance.
  • Childhood trauma: Children who experience divorce, death of a family member, parent incarceration, or other childhood trauma may experience harmful stress levels. Research shows toxic and high-stress levels experienced by families living in poverty can harm brain development in children.
  • English as a second language: Non-English-speaking students often find themselves at a disadvantage in the classroom. Their lack of ability in English creates a serious barrier to instruction, and puts their education at great risk.

Signs of overplacement

How can educators recognize an overplaced child? Look for students who exhibit three or more signs of stress. Of course, all children display some signs of stress at times. But severe stress is indicated when a child consistently displays several stress signs that last two or more weeks. These signs of stress aren’t displayed only in school. They are pervasive across multiple settings, including a child’s home life and social life.

What to do about overplacement? Fortunately, there are many practical ways to help children who are in over their head because they are too young for kindergarten. Frequently, these children may spend an extra year at home, in daycare, or in pre-school. But such options are usually available only to financially advantaged families.

For everyone else, affordable options may include a pre-kindergarten program, pre-first grade program, pre-second-grade program, and a pre-third grade program. Or remaining in a two-year, multi-age, continuous progress classroom.


For a deeper look at the complex issues surrounding kindergarten readiness, check out SDE’s webinar I Am Five, Am I Ready for Kindergarten? Understanding School Readiness by former educator and author Jim Grant.

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