Sunday, August 16, 2015

Is First Grade Ready for Your Child?

If you are a parent of a six-year-old about to enter first grade, you are sure to be wondering if your child is “ready for first grade.” You may have already had this discussion with a kindergarten teacher, school administrator or your Aunt Janet who taught school for a while thirty years ago. Everybody seems to have an opinion on first grade readiness and after all if your child is not ready for first grade and “falls behind” at the very start of his/her schooling, what are the chances that s/he will be “college and career ready” in 12 years?

Google “first-grade readiness” and you will get dozens of hits for websites that provide you with checklists, some of them a hundred items long that purport to tell you if your child is ready. Just go through the list, check off the benchmarks and there you have it, concrete evidence that your child is ready – or not. You can find one of these lists here. These lists contain items related to social skills, like the ability to work, play and share with others and to resolve conflict with words; language skills, like the ability to listen to and comprehend instructions and distinguish fact from fiction; number sense, like counting to 30 and estimating quantities using blocks and paper clips; social studies, like the ability to understand history as stories of what has happened in the past; and science, such as the recognition of how people impact life on earth.

Ultimately, these lists are an exercise in futility. The real question a parent should be asking is not if my child is ready for first grade, but is first grade ready for my child. It is not a child’s responsibility to be ready for first grade, it is the professional responsibility of the adults at the school to make sure that first grade is ready for your child. Six year-old children come in all shapes, sizes and levels of physical, social and intellectual development and schools need to be prepared to accommodate them all and provide an appropriate education for them all.

Thirty years ago I faced a difficult decision. My son, a bright, but very active (some said hyperactive) child, had just turned 6 in July and his kindergarten teacher had suggested he was not ready for first grade. The school offered a “transitional” first grade designed for kids who were not ready (in the school's opinion), to enter first grade. This would mean that my son would spend a year in “transitional” first grade and then another year in an actual first grade. By this time I had a Masters degree in education and I was well aware that learning differences among children tended to level out by grade 4 and that readiness was a relative idea that was more about adult preferences than children’s needs. What I felt the teachers and school administrators were telling me was that my child was too frenetic in behavior for first grade.

I decided to investigate what first grade in my local district looked like. I had some experience with this school’s program because my daughter had attended first grade without incident or inspiration a few years earlier. What I found was a first grade classroom that required long periods of sitting still, whole group instruction and worksheet completion. I determined that first grade was not ready for my active learner of a son. We sent him to transitional first where he had a wonderful caring teacher who understood the needs of an active and eager child and provided the kind of learning engagement my son needed. Despite the happy ending, I am ambivalent about this decision to this day. I feel it is a choice I should not have had to make and that held my son back for a year with no good reason.


Schools should be ready for the child and not expect the child to be ready for the school. Early childhood programs must be based on the ways students learn, not on how adults prefer to teach. Since young children learn best through their senses by doing, learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.

Exactly. In light of these guidelines and also as a sort of counter measure to all those child readiness checklists out there, I offer a checklist to help everyone determine if first grade is ready for their child.

How to determine if first grade is ready for your child

·         Are first grade classes no larger than 22 children?
·         Is the teacher certified in elementary or early childhood education?
·         Is a significant part of the day spent in hands-on learning activities?
·         Is seat work (completing worksheets) kept to a minimum?
·         Does instruction happen in a variety of group settings – large group, small group, partnerships and individual instruction?
·         Do children have frequent opportunities to move around the room?
·         Is the classroom neat, well-organized, colorful with lots of helpful “anchor charts” for student reference?
·         Do the children have frequent opportunities to interact with other children in pairs and small groups?
·         Are the children read aloud to daily?
·         Do children receive daily small group reading instruction?
·         Do children have the opportunity to read books of their own choice daily?
·         Is the classroom well stocked with a variety of books for children to explore?
·         Do children have the opportunity to write about their reading and their own experiences daily?
·         Are writing materials readily available to children?
·         Are math concepts explored and reinforced with the use of math manipulatives (blocks, tiles, interlocking cubes, Cuisenaire rods, etc.)?
·         Are a variety of word games, math games and other children’s games available and used by the children?
·         Is homework limited to no more than 30 minutes a night and focused on reading or on math reinforcement?
·         Are students assessed through observation rather through paper and pencil tests focused on success or failure?
·         Is my child’s cultural or racial background reflected in the classroom environment, in the classroom library and in the classroom learning materials?
·         Is there good communication between the school and the home?
·         Do children have regularly scheduled instruction in music, art, health and physical education?
·         Is technology available, in good repair and used as a tool to reinforce instruction?
·         Are learning supports in literacy, math, speech, occupational therapy and English as a second language readily available?

This list could go on and you may want to add some of your own criteria. The point is that your child, no matter his/her learning strengths and weaknesses, level of activeness or idiosyncratic interests should find a welcoming teacher and a welcoming environment for learning in the school.

One worry that many teachers and an increasing number of parents have is that the current emphasis on more rigorous standards will force a more “academic” environment on a first grade classroom. We need to remember that rigor does not mean that children should be subjected to developmentally inappropriate instruction. If rigor is interpreted as kids sitting at desks, reading more difficult texts and filling out more and more worksheets, we are not providing rigor, we are just making learning harder than it needs to be, and condemning many children to feelings of inadequacy and failure at the age of 6.