Skills Your Kid Needs to Know Before Kindergarten

Updated on June 17, 2022

Childhood is full of “firsts,” and your child starting kindergarten is up there with one of the biggest. “It’s the start of a partnership between the parent and the child’s educational experience,” says Adrianna Bravo, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and senior medical advisor for Inspire Diagnostics. “This is an experience that will last for a long time—at least until high school and possibly into higher education.”

It’s understandable that this milestone often comes with a substantial dose of nerves—for the child and their parent. It brings new routines and faces, an unfamiliar environment, and a whole set of new expectations. Some children settle into kindergarten almost instantly, but it takes others a little longer—and that’s completely normal. If you treat your child with compassion and offer comfort and support when needed, you’ll help make the transition easier.

It may also help to have an understanding of the skills you might look for in your child before kindergarten, so let’s take a look.

Kindergarten Readiness

Before we do a deep dive into specific skills, you’re likely wondering what it actually means for your child to be “ready for kindergarten.”

Dr. Bravo says that readiness can be divided into three categories: academic (language and math) social-emotional, and behavioral. “Through organizing these categories, you can create an informal checklist which is tailored to your child,” she explains.

The Common Core State Standards, hosted and maintained by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center), provide parents and educators with the standards for mathematics and English language arts.

Each state has its own guidelines for kindergarten readiness. For instance, Utah Education Network provides checklists for self-help skills (eating independently, cleaning up after self), small motor skills (holding pencils and other items correctly, turning a single page in a book), large motor skills (walk in a straight line forward and backward, hop, jump, walk, and run) and social and emotional skills (share and take turns, show concern for others).1

In terms of academic standards, Pennsylvania’s guidelines state that kindergarten teachers expect children to be able to recognize eight to 12 letters (both upper and lower case), write their own name with most of the letters correct, count to 20, and know most written numbers from one to 10.2

The current standards for kindergarten readiness support the idea that certain academic milestones provide an advantage later in life. But this is necessarily the case, says Kelly Fradin, MD, pediatrician and author of “Parenting in a Pandemic: How to Help Your Family Through COVID-19.”

“As a culture, we put an emphasis on achievement, with many parents feeling that their children’s developmental progress reflects on their parenting or on their potential for success in life,” Dr. Fradin says. “But we know that’s not the case for many children.”

The concept of kindergarten readiness is gradually being phased out, explains Dr. Fradin. “Children are entitled to an appropriate educational environment, and if they have developmental disabilities or delays, starting school will likely improve access to resources to support their development,” she says.

Dr. Fradin points out that in many areas, parents are forced to choose whether to send a child to kindergarten or wait a year, and this becomes problematic. Some families delay in the three to six months before the cutoff, leading the classroom to skew older and a wider age range, which can be more difficult for teachers and for the youngest students, she explains.

If we’re starting to phase out the traditional concept of kindergarten readiness, what can be expected in its place? According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the focus should be on a healthy state of mind, rather than the academic basics.3 To help their children achieve this, the NAEYC encourages parents and caregivers to be responsive to all areas of their child’s development, including emotional, social, cultural, physical, and cognitive.

What Skills Will My Child Need for Kindergarten? 

There are certain skills your child will benefit from having before they enter kindergarten. Think about language and math skills. You should consider whether your child can use sentences, recite the alphabet, recognize their own name, and count from one to ten, says Dr. Bravo.

When it comes to language, can they use sentences to express their needs, and are those words mostly intelligible? In terms of behavioral readiness, can your child play and share?

Dr. Fradin believes social and emotional skills seem more predictive of a child’s future success, likely because they impact both a child’s wellness and support to weather life’s ups and downs. This includes being able to reasonably regulate their emotions when faced with minor disappointments, using the bathroom on their own, and feeding themselves independently.

Examples of Kindergarten Readiness Skills

Remember, not every child develops at the same pace, so it’s OK if your child hasn’t hit these particular milestones before starting kindergarten.

  • Eating independently
  • Using the restroom and washing their hands
  • Holding a pencil correctly
  • Counting out loud to 10
  • Drawing and scribbling to express ideas
  • Turning a single page in a book
  • Throwing a ball
  • Walking in a straight line forward and backward
  • Waiting and listening while others talk
  • Speaking in complete sentences
  • Knowing their first and last names

With that said, kindergarten-aged children will all be at their own developmental milestones, and Dr. Fradin stresses that all children should be welcomed at school. “Any children who may have difficulty independently or safely navigating the classroom environment should have an educational plan with appropriate resources to support their school experience,” she says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that the idea that some children are “ready for school” by 4 or 5 and others aren’t is a controversial one, and supports wider access to quality early education and equipping schools to meet the needs of all kindergarteners, regardless of their level of “readiness.”4

This is particularly important for kids who may need additional support due to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What Do I Do If My Child Doesn’t Have These Skills? 

If you don’t think your child has many—or any—of the skills associated with kindergarten readiness, don’t panic. In the same way that kids start walking, talking, and going diaperless at different ages, they also develop academically, psychologically, and socially at their own pace.

Dr. Bravo encourages families who have concerns to check in with their child’s pediatrician and utilize community resources. For instance, pediatricians can connect families to great early intervention programs, local public schools can aid in identifying growth and developmental deficits, and your local public library can offer resources for assessing kindergarten readiness and support needs.

“I also encourage parents to remember that not every kid marches through this at the same pace,” Dr. Bravo adds. “Yet, with support and resources, the kid can get there.”

If a child of any age has a developmental delay, Dr. Fradin says that it’s essential to get them an interdisciplinary evaluation. “A pediatrician, along with speech, occupational, and physical therapists, can examine the child to make a plan suited to meet the child’s needs,” she explains. “If the child is under 3, typically this is through the early intervention program. At age 3 or 4, it’s typically in preschool special education programs, and subsequently in kindergarten and elementary school.”

If you want to track your child’s development, the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) offers free age-specific milestone checklists, which you can access on the CDC website. There’s also a Milestone Tracker app that you can download to your smartphone or tablet, providing another simple way to check where your child might be developmentally based on their age.

If you have any concerns about your child’s development, arrange a visit with their pediatrician. You might find it useful to complete the CDC checklists and take them with you, too.

A Word From Verywell

The ability to share and show concern for others, hold a pencil correctly, eat independently, and master basic math and literature skills are some of the things that may indicate your child is ready for kindergarten. But it’s important to remember that every child develops at their own pace. If you have concerns about any aspect of your child’s development, speak to their pediatrician.

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