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A Kindergarten Readiness Guide

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Starting kindergarten is an important step for a child. Because developmental rates vary so much between the ages of 4 and 7 years, the actual time of readiness for each child also varies. Readiness does not predict how smart, competent, or talented a child will be later on; rather, it is a measure of a child's social maturity now.

Children ready for kindergarten have to do much more than learn: They must be able to interact with others, follow directions, and function reasonably well in a group. The readiness list below is intended as an overview of qualities that parents can discuss with school staff and health care providers when it's time to assess whether their child should begin kindergarten. It's a jumping-off point, not an absolute measure; it's designed to help you be a better observer and a better advocate for your child.

Evaluating Readiness: A Guide

Motor, Language, and Self-Care Skills: A Checklist

Age and Size

Asking for Help

Evaluating Readiness: A Guide

It takes a lifetime to fully develop all the abilities discussed below. However, for the best kindergarten experience, your child should be starting to develop most of these skills:

Focus. Schools these days are often busy and noisy. Can your child pay attention even if there are distractions? An attention span of 15 to 20 minutes is what you're looking for. Some children may need more time in preschool, where the activity periods are shorter and the distractions fewer.

Willingness to work. Ask yourself: Does my child follow directions agreeably and easily? Or does she get angry or resentful when an adult gives her directions? Another way to address the issue is to consider whether your child plays cooperatively with other kids and is accustomed to being in a group. If she's still in the "no" phase, resistant to most suggestions from peers or willing to consider only her own agenda, she may need more practice and prompting in preschool.

Listening skills. Can your child follow two- or three-step directions in sequence, or does he need help at each step? School is a verbal world, so he should be able to understand what is said to him and to act on instructions. If he can't, he may need more time or an evaluation for a learning difference.

Social skills. The following questions will help you think about what social skills will be needed in kindergarten.

  • Can your child be a leader and a follower in his interactions with other kids?
  • Does he participate in other people's games?
  • Can he share things with someone he likes? Has he learned that sharing is a way to make friends and not just a way to avoid punishment?
  • Can he be assertive without being a bully? That is, can your child use nonthreatening words to get his way?
  • Can he wait his turn or does he push ahead, cry, or whine when asked to wait?
  • Can he get adult attention without whining, clinging, crying, screaming, or throwing things?
  • Can he separate from his parents without too much distress after a get-acquainted time? (A five-minute whimper is okay; an hour of fussing is not.)

Motor, Language, and Self-Care Skills: A Checklist

To assess a child's maturity, screening for some specific skills may be done through a pediatrician's assessment or a teacher's evaluation. This screening may focus on fine-motor, large-motor, language, thinking, and self-care skills.

Fine-motor skills

  • Holding a pencil like an adult
  • Drawing a circle and square without help
  • Drawing a person with head, body, arms, and legs
  • Using a fork
  • Buttoning and unbuttoning clothes

Large-motor skills

  • Hopping
  • Skipping at least a little
  • Pedaling a three-wheeler
  • Pumping on a swing
  • Turning a somersault
  • Walking heel-to-toe
  • Throwing a ball
  • Climbing on a jungle gym

Language and thinking skills

  • Can your child retell the general story line of a book that was just read to her?
  • Can she tell about an experience she's had (not necessarily with all the events in exact order)?
  • Can your child appreciate simple jokes? Does she understand why the jokes are funny?
  • Is she beginning to understand things from another's perspective, such as how another child would be likely to feel or act in a given setting or situation? That is, is she beginning to show empathy?
  • Can strangers understand her speech nearly 100 percent of the time?
  • Does she speak in sentences of five or more words?
  • Does she use the past and future tenses? Does she have a sense of time sequence —that one event occurred before or after another?
  • Does she know numbers up to 10?
  • Does she know the alphabet or at least some of the letters?
  • Can she identify six colors?

Self-care skills

  • Is your child mostly toilet trained (not counting isolated accidents)?
  • Can he wash and dry his own hands? Will he sit to eat lunch on his own? 
  • Can he dress himself with minimal supervision? 
  • Can your child do a multi-step chore, such as feeding the dog?

If your child is nearing the age of 6 and there are several things on the above list he can't master, contact your primary health care provider. Your child's development may need a second look. It doesn't mean he can't or shouldn't be in school, but it may signal a need for certain services or supports to help him succeed. You also will need to be in touch with your local school.

Age and Size

There are many other factors that go into a decision on kindergarten readiness. For example, boys mature more slowly than girls do, so boys may start kindergarten later, in general, than girls. But individual difference is more important than gender.

If your child has a birthday near your school's cutoff date (that is, in late summer or early fall), you might consider holding her back. In general, it's better to be one of the oldest than one of the youngest in a class, although this may not apply in all cases.

Children who are physically big for their age are good candidates for an early or non-delayed start if they show the appropriate readiness characteristics. Small children often do better in a younger group, where they are less of a physical standout and can compete on the playground.

Some schools are more academically demanding than others. If you want to enrol your child in one of those, think about delaying kindergarten. On the other hand, in a kindergarten that's more relaxed academically, your 4-year-old or young 5-year-old may function very well.

If virtually all the entering kindergartners at your local school have reached their sixth birthday, think carefully before enrolling your young 5-year-old. A match between the class and your own child is always the best situation.

A child who has been in a structured day care setting or preschool for at least two years may have many of the skills needed for kindergarten and may be ready to move on. Be sure she has the social maturity to take that step, however.

Asking for Help

Your child's health care provider can assist with a school assessment. In addition to giving your child the immunizations and the vision and hearing checks he needs between the ages of 4 and 6, your provider should be keeping you up to date on the maturity issues noted above. She'll put your child through his paces and let you know if she sees any cause for concern. If she does, she may provide a referral to a specialist.

Many school districts have school-readiness screenings, often in the spring of the year prior to enrollment. Be aware of the process in your district. A call to your local elementary school is all it takes.

If your child has been in preschool or day care, ask the teachers or day care providers for an honest opinion about your child's readiness. Most experienced preschool teachers have a pretty good sense of this, and, like your health care provider, have probably been keeping you posted on progress and problems.


Member comments

Great article extremely helpful!

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