Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Sandy Ginther
As the parent of three daughters, I was always bothered by “Ready for School” initiatives. While my two typically developing girls passed their kindergarten readiness tests, I was still troubled by it. It was like they had to earn their right to go to kindergarten. After all, if one didn’t pass, didn’t that imply she could not go to kindergarten? And why would we start any child’s school career with rejection?
Least Restrictive Environment Is Interpreted Differently Among School Districts
My third daughter, Abbey, has Down syndrome. With an emphasis on academic skills, she would not pass the kindergarten school readiness test. Her eligibility for special education entitled her to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE presumes that environment to be the general education classroom with accommodations and other services recognized as appropriate for support. This principle should not deny a child ‘not ready for school’ their right to the same kindergarten, but gets the ‘school ready’ for the child. However, our public school system saw Abbey’s LRE as being in the self-contained special education classroom. The Ready for School initiative only advanced their position. In the end, however, Abbey did attend general education kindergarten in her neighborhood school where her sisters attended.
As a parent, my personal view has absolute relevance for my family. But how does my opinion stack up against the rest of the world when it comes to school readiness?
Guess I am not alone in my opinion as the American Academy of Pediatrics had this to say on their website Healthy Children: “The idea that because of their birth date some children are “ready for school” and others are not has become controversial. Just as children begin to walk or talk at different ages, they also develop the psychological and social skills necessary for school at varying ages. Also, many parents and educators feel that schools need to be ready for children. This newer approach emphasizes designing curriculum so that all students of the chronological age to entering school can benefit from the program.”
School Readiness Policies Have Unintended Consequences
This concern about Ready for School influence on kindergarten access is however just one reason for controversy on the child-ready-for-school compared to the school-ready-for-the-child views. Recent studies and early childhood experts have chimed in to call for re-thinking school readiness. As recently as March 2016, ‘Young Exceptional Children Journal’ (Vol. 19, Number 1, Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children) published the article, “Voices from the Field: Three Mistakes Made Worldwide in ‘Getting Children Ready’ for School”. The article states that readiness policies have had unintended negative consequences. And that tensions exist between developmentally appropriate practices in effective early childhood education and the ready for school practice. The article, by authors from across the world, identified the three mistakes as:
Conceptualizing “readiness” as a trait
Outcomes are fragmented and taught in isolation
Policies and practices emphasize standardization
They went on to offer a new definition of readiness: “Readiness is a developmental process, mostly unpredictable and highly influenced by the child’s social relationships and interactions. Readiness requires a whole-child perspective where individual differences are expected, valued, and celebrated.” (pg. 49) They expand the child’s social relationships and interactions factors as the bottom line in determining readiness. Their whole-child approach to development and learning avoids the focus on a child’s level in performing ‘discrete skills or a set of narrowly defined skills’ and embraces the ‘integration or clustering of skills into a functional whole’. A whole child approach, they report, realizes a natural pace can’t be accelerated by targeting developmentally IN-appropriate outcomes.
Readiness as a Personal Trait Puts the Responsibility on the Child
Author, David Elkind in his 2014 book ‘Parenting on the Go’, states: “The problem with viewing readiness as a personal trait, rather than a relationship, is that it puts the entire onus on the child.” (pg. 193) Elkind reveals that when we demand certain skills be met, it is we determining a child’s readiness, or lack thereof. So he writes: “Knowing one’s numbers and letters are not what a child needs to know to succeed… A child needs:
1. To be able to listen to and follow instructions 2. To concentrate and bring a task to completion 3. To be able to work cooperatively with other children If a child has these, the numbers and letters will follow.” (Pg. 194)
And yet our kids with disabilities may still be emerging into Elkind’s three skills.
That’s what special education services are for — to follow the child into the least restrictive general education environment. The Individual Education Program should support the child while she/he is observing and emulating kindergarteners that already possess those skills.
Children with Disabilities Do Not Need to Be Ready to Be Included
Also in 2014 Erin Barton and Barbara J. Smith generated the ‘Brief Summary: Fact Sheet of Research on Preschool Inclusion’. One point states: “Children with disabilities do not need to be ‘ready’ to be included. Programs need to be ‘ready’ to support all children.” DEC/NAEYC (2009) Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
But make no mistake: there are real actions that can be taken by us, families, to promote our children’s entrance into a school through our nurturing the love of discovery (AKA learning) and healthy relationships.
The same Healthy Children website cited above also includes advice for families. Reading to your children, exposure to enriching experiences like museum visits, farms, cities, and opportunities to play alongside or with other children either in the neighborhood and larger community are all beneficial for early development.
Building a Relationship with Your Child Promotes Readiness
The Three Mistakes article also states that there is a need to ready families and communities. So there are many sources of parental interaction and parent provided activities for our young children that will acclimate and prepare them. The standard fare for families to practice includes: reading aloud DAILY, encouraging and supporting them to try new things (demanding and forcing can defeat), listen and show you are listening and paying attention (we want them to learn to pay attention), provide nutritious foods and drinks (that you eat and drink too), demonstrate sharing and turn-taking, acknowledge what they are doing with descriptions (it’s better than – and harder than – the typical ‘good job’ praise), point out when your child has reason to feel good about themselves, and set limits for your child (it’s practice for the teenage years).
Here are some examples of activities:
Sing to and with your child, simple melodies at first.
Use natural materials. Give your child a spoon and pots, pans, or plastic bowls to bang on; shake a large rattle or plastic container filled with beans, buttons, or other noisy items; and blow through empty toilet paper or paper towel rolls, etc.
Show your child how to take part in nursery rhymes. Help them copy your hand movements, clap, or hum along.
Encourage your child to sway and dance to music by your example.
Scribbling, cutting, and pasting helps to develop fine motor skills, using different materials to find what interest them (messy paints, chalk, markers, Crayola’s, etc. are worth it).
Help your child learn how to use blunt nosed scissors, starting with free form cutting.
Paste items, such as scraps of cloth, yarn, string, or cotton balls, to paper. You can make a paste with flour and water or by using leftover egg white.
Socially, remember our preschoolers are usually black and white concrete thinkers. What they see is what they get. Watch your example, because they are.
Advocate for High-Quality Inclusive Education Programs
Finally from the Early CHOICES’ perspective, one of the best things families can do to prepare their children for kindergarten is to advocate/obtain high-quality inclusion with typically developing children during the preschool years. So it is neither one nor the other, but both the school being ready for the child AND the child being ready for school, which bring the best outcomes for kindergarten and the future. By shared information between the school and families about what readiness means, both can be ready. And like our young children, establishing those relationships and interactions is crucial.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (Last Updated11/21/2015). Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Is-Your-Child-Ready-for-School.aspx
Barton, E. E. & Smith, B. J. (2014). Brief fact sheet of research on preschool inclusion. Pyramid Plus: The Colorado Center for Social Emotional Competence and Inclusion. Denver, CO. http://www.pyramidplus.org
Elkind, D. (2014) Parenting on the go: Birth to six, A to Z. Boston, MA: DaCapo Press.
Pretti-Frontczak, K., Harjusola-Webb, S., Chin, M., Grisham-Brown, J., Acar, S., Heo, K., Corby, M., & Zeng, S. (2016). Voices from the field: Three Mistakes worldwide in “Getting Children Ready for School”. Young Exceptional Children, 19, 48-51.
Thirty years ago when Sandy’s daughter was born with Down syndrome, she became active in endeavors related to disability, inclusive practices, children, and education. She has been employed with the state’s Project CHOICES, directed a countywide Early Intervention Program, served as an Early Intervention Statewide Trainer, been an Early Childhood and Family Resource Specialist, and is currently a consultant for Early CHOICES, an Illinois Preschool Least Restrictive Environment initiative. Sandy has a B.S. in Communication and a minor in Special Education from Illinois State University, and graduate hours in Early Childhood from Western Illinois University, Portland State University and the University of Colorado. The foundation of Sandy’s work is composed of personally recognizing the need for an accepting society, professionally following researched benefits of inclusive supported opportunities and the significance of the early childhood years.