Okay, since I've already bored my readership (all ten of you...) with all the sensory stuff, I'll go ahead and hit on this topic before returning to our regular programming.
I've been meaning to write about it for almost a couple years now, because when I wrote about Little Girl's terrible kindergarten experience, and how it compared to how things were done in her preschool, I titled it "Kindergarten vs. Preschool". Well that (and hillbilly weddings, oddly enough...) is by far the search string that brings the most people in... so I recognized that there must be a lot of parents out there trying to decide whether their little one should go ahead and start kindergarten or go to preschool first.
So, as an early interventionist who works with children to prepare them to enter preschool now, with six years of experience working in the elementary school system (which included both a preschool and a Head Start classroom) with most of my students being in preschool and kindergarten prior to this, I offer you my educated opinion:
If you have a "young kindergartener" -- which in most states these days is a child who will turn five over the summer -- you have a decision to make. Many (I would even venture to say most) parents are now holding their young kindergarteners out of kindergarten until the following year. And with good reason. Kindergarten isn't what it used to be. A lot is expected of kindergarteners these days. They're expected to be reading before the school year is out.
What I know about reading from my special ed background: Children are developmentally ready to learn to read at the age of 6. (That means when they are at an intellectual age of 6. Some children are certainly able to learn to read younger than 6, but those children are intellectually ahead of their chronological age. In other words, their brain is functioning like a six year old's brain at the age of four or five.)
So what does this mean for our young kindergarteners? Our children who won't turn six until the very end of kindergarten or the summer after their kindergarten year? It's bad news. If the child is developmentally on track, meaning they learn typically and appropriately for their age, they actually aren't really ready to learn to read until AFTER they finish kindergarten -- and yet, they are expected to be reading nonetheless before they finish. That isn't fair to the child, and fortunately, many parents are recognizing this and this is why so many summer five-year-olds are being put in preschool for their five year old year. This works out great for these children, because they can still experience the structured routine of school and gain the social skills appropriate for five-year-olds from classmates, but they won't start kindergarten and be expected to learn to read until they are six -- and developmentally ready to do so.
That said, I don't necessarily advocate holding all children back a year just because their birthday falls during the summer. Some children are developmentally ahead of schedule and it would be in their best interest to start kindergarten. This was our decision for Little Girl, who was a summer five. She's one of the youngest in her class (maybe the youngest), but that's okay. She's emotionally mature enough that she's keeping up socially without difficulty, and we knew it would be doing her a disservice to hold her back because she was already reading some on her own before she even started kindergarten, without having been formally taught. To keep her back would have made her intellectually so far above the other kids by the time she was six that she would have been bored to death, and wouldn't have learned anything at all from school. So despite her young age, Little Girl went to kindergarten at just-turned-five.
Baby Boy on the other hand just missed the cutoff by a couple of days, and I'm thrilled about that because it takes the decision out of our hands. I think Baby Boy will benefit greatly from the extra year of preschool, and not turning six until kindergarten starts, because he simply does not have the social and emotional maturity that Little Girl had at his age, even if he does have the intellectual capacity, which I think he will based on the cognitive skills he can do even now.
So that brings me to my next point. Even if you feel your child is intellectually ahead of schedule and will not struggle academically if put in kindergarten as a young five-year-old, the other aspect you need to look at is emotional and social skills. Watch your child with other children slightly older than him or her. See how they interact with other children, how they play, how they respond to difficult situations. Is your child mature enough to relate on equal terms with children several months to a year older, or is he or she going to stick out like a sore thumb on the playground because they just haven't developed the social skills of a slightly older child yet. And remember, this doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your child's maturity or social skills -- the other children are older. I'm just pointing out that just because a child is ahead of his/her age level intellectually does not mean they will also be ahead of their age level socially and emotionally. And all three areas are required if you want a successful school career for your child. Issues with delayed social skills may not become apparent in kindergarten, but let your child get to 3rd grade and see them as the kid everybody picks on because they're immature, and you'll regret that decision to push them ahead of what they were capable of.
So, my advice to you as a parent of a young five-year-old of kindergarten entry age, is to look carefully at your child's skills academically, socially, and emotionally. If your child has consistently demonstrated skills AHEAD of their chronological age level, going ahead with kindergarten may be your best option. But if you see that your child is only AT age level (and if your child is below level, keep reading as I address this separately) in ANY of these three areas, you should strongly consider a good solid preschool for their five-year-old year.
Now if you have a "special needs" child, my advice is different. If you have a child that you know learns slowly, has already had a lot of intervention, maybe has attended a special needs preschool for two years, and you know that learning to read is going to be a big task for your little one, you might want to consider putting your child in kindergarten with the plan to do either kindergarten or first grade twice.
Why? Because your child has already had a full preschool experience. And you already know your child is going to need a lot of repetition to learn the foundations of reading. Kindergarten and first grade are very foundational years, and I personally would rather have a child repeat kindergarten or first grade than any other year. And if you have a young kindergartener, that age is on your side -- your child then has the opportunity to do kindergarten for two years and get all those basics drilled into them (or if your child does pretty well with kindergarten but falls apart in first grade, that would be the year to repeat) and still come out being about the same age as the other children in their classroom, even AFTER the retention.
If the child's learning problems are mild enough, that double kindergarten or first grade just might be enough to prevent them from having to be put in special education classes; and even if the child's problems are more significant than that, the extra year in regular education will do them good even if they still end up having to be put in special education afterward. Give them a good beginning school experience to start off with, and build their foundation as solidly as possible. So children with known learning problems, that's my advice... put them in as young kindergarteners and then let them repeat a year. (I almost never would advise repeating any year later than first grade. If your child struggles in a later grade because they missed important blocks in their foundation, repeating a later grade will not fill in those blocks because those skills simply aren't taught in later grades. Getting that solid K-1st foundation is CRITICAL. THOSE are the years to repeat, if retention is going to be necessary.)
My two cents, for what it's worth. :)