What Does "Kindergarten Readiness" Mean?

At the Urban Child Institute, we've spent a considerable amount of time talking about "kindergarten readiness." Often we focus on the fact that kindergarten readiness is critical for lifetime well being. However, too few children are fully prepared for kindergarten. What does this phrase mean, though? What are the specific skills and requirements for kindergarten readiness that these unprepared children are lacking? Without a universal definition, kindergarten readiness becomes a matter of perspective. State policy, teachers, and parents differ greatly in the ways in which they determine a child is ready for school.

State Policy

The policy in the State of Tennessee has compulsory education laws, stating the following:1

  1. Children attending kindergarten must be five years of age on or before September 30.
  2. Children do not have to enroll in school at five years of age, but they must be in school by their sixth birthday.
  3. Children may not attend first grade without first attending an approved kindergarten program.

While parents, teachers, and scholars muse about the particular skill sets required of kindergarteners, the main concern of policymakers is that every child has access to their right for education. In essence, the policy sees every child as ready for kindergarten as long as they are between five and six years of age.

The Teacher's Definition

The kindergarten teacher's definition of school readiness is based both on years of experience and also a district-wide curriculum. In the social-emotional realm, kindergarten teachers think it is very important for children to be able to communicate their needs, wants and thoughts verbally, and be enthusiastic and curious about approaching new activities. Less important to teachers is the ability to share, take turns, or sit patiently.2 In addition to the social-emotional characteristics, the way kindergarten readiness assessments are structured also impacts teachers' definition of school readiness by the importance placed on more cognitive skills. These assessments typically cover tasks and skills related to language and developing literacy skills, basic math skills, social skills, and motor skills. Children are not necessarily expected to be able to complete the entire assessment. It is important that children know that it is ok to not be able to answer some questions. They should also be encouraged to ask the teacher administering their assessment any questions they feel are necessary.3

The Parent's Definition

The parent's definition of kindergarten readiness is somewhat more all encompassing, compared to state policy and teachers' definitions. Parents believe strongly that in addition to the social-emotional components of kindergarten readiness (being enthusiastic about learning, communicating verbally, sharing, taking turns), the cognitive components of knowing the letters of the alphabet, being able to count to 20 or more, and using pencils and paint brushes are also critical skill sets.3 Parents on the whole are more willing to state that the social-emotional and cognitive skills are all very important or essential for kindergarten readiness, while fewer teachers consider these skills equally as important.

Implications for Differences in Defining "Kindergarten Readiness."

In recognizing that "kindergarten readiness" is a matter of perspective, we must foster dialogue and mutual understanding between parents, policymakers, and teachers. Policymakers have done the work to mandate that every child gets a kindergarten education. However, recognizing that there are qualities other than age that lead to greater success in kindergarten may encourage them to advocate for more, and higher quality pre-kindergarten and early childhood education. Teachers and parents can work together on defining each child's level of readiness. Since parents may fear their children are ill-prepared for kindergarten if they are unable to successfully complete cognitive tasks, teachers can play an important role in educating parents on how every child develops at his or her own pace. Parents should not be discouraged if their child cannot perform tasks that they think their child should be able to do. While parents tend to emphasize activities that promote cognitive development, it is important to recognize their role in also fostering social-emotional development. Parents can do this by praising children for doing things like "using their words" and following directions.


Tennessee State Board of Education: Frequently Asked Questions.  Accessed July 20, 2012. Available here.

West, J., Hausken, E. J., Collins, M. (1993). Readiness for kindergarten: parent and teacher beliefs. Statistics in brief. The National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, D. C. Available here.

An Educated Choice. Kindergarten Readiness Assessments. Accessed July 20, 2012. Available here.