“How will I know when my child is ready to start school?”

You’ve probably asked yourself—and others—this really perplexing question. You’ve also probably heard the following answer: “Oh. You’ll just know.”

It’s such a vague reply, and in all honesty, that can be a little frustrating. So let’s chat about how you can be more than certain that your child is ready to “start school.”

What does “starting school” look like in homeschooling?

There are three hallmarks that can help us prepare for that exciting (albeit slightly terrifying) time when we begin “formal instruction” with our child. Before we tackle the question of “when,” let’s discuss how formal instruction might be different from the play-based educational activities you may already be doing with your preschooler.

Formal instruction in the early years means a slight shift—a gentle transition from enjoying play as the primary educational experience, to including a gradually more structured, intentional time of daily learning that has specific, cumulative teaching in core subjects like reading and math.

This doesn’t mean stopping play, as children learn best through play; rather, this shift is a decision to begin more intentionally and systematically introducing and building your child’s early literacy and math skills.

Let’s discuss three indicators that you might consider in order to discern if your child is ready to begin early, formal instruction.

INDICATOR 1: Age

Many parents tend to think of age 5 as a milestone marking when their child should be ready to attend a full day of kindergarten-level instruction. For me, this milestone is a great indicator that you should start paying attention to your child’s readiness, but it does not indicate that your child is wholly ready for a full day of school. It’s not uncommon for a child of 5 to lack many of the developmental indicators that signal that he is ready for the huge task of learning to read (for a list of indicators by age, check out this link).

A child can be developmentally ready for early instruction before the age of 5 years, just as he can be 6 and not yet developmentally ready to learn to read. As we give the normal age of potty learning a wide berth (anywhere from 18 months to almost 4 years), we can expect just that much variation in whether our child’s eyes, brain, and language development are all at a place that he can accept and excel in reading and math instruction.

INDICATOR 2: Physical Readiness

This hallmark for young children is often one of the most underdiscussed and overlooked among parents, but in my opinion, it’s a much more significant component than age, so let’s take a closer look.

What are some physical signs of readiness that your child is primed to start early reading and math instruction?

  • Your child can sit still and attend to what he is being told for a minimum of five minutes. (Initial reading lessons for a 5- or 6-year-old child are ideally kept to a quick, engaging five minutes.)
  • Your child can follow an object with her eyes (smoothly), up-and-down and from side-to-side, for at least 15 seconds.
  • Your child can skip (even if roughly), which indicates that his brain hemispheres can effectively communicate across the midline (i.e., the child has the ability to cross over his body to perform tasks on the other side of his body).
  • Your child can cross the midline. (Give your child a stuffed animal to hold. Have her hold it straight out to one side of her body, then move it all the way across her body to the other side, without swapping hands.) Again, this is another indication that your child’s brain hemispheres are communicating with one another to a great enough extent that reading instruction will be fruitful.
  • Your child can reach his hand over his head and touch the opposite ear. Pulled from the Waldorf philosophy and my own homeschooling experience, this indicator seems pretty accurate: once a child’s head is less a “toddler” head size (with respect to his overall body size) and more a “young child” head size, his hand can reach over his head to the opposite ear. While not a firm rule, it’s a great indicator that he’s reached some important physical milestones and is ready to become a little more cerebral. (Learn about Waldorf here.)
  • Your child can repeat five-word statements.
  • Your child has outgrown “baby talk” and has mastered most letter sounds in speech, aside from the normal sounds like “th,” “zh,” “j,” and “v” that may still be challenging. (Note: if your child is undergoing speech therapy, please discuss this with your therapist.)
  • Your child can recognize most capital letters and understands that they each have a distinct sound.
  • Your child can rhyme short words.
  • If you say to your child, “c . . . aaaaa . . . t,” she can decode the word, “cat.”

INDICATOR 3: Interest

While age is the indicator that has me beginning to look for and assess physical signs, interest is another essential readiness indicator. We all deeply desire for our children to develop a love for reading and learning. While some children may need a nudge, most children will naturally have a keen interest in decoding books for themselves, as long as literacy is a constant part of their daily lives. Sometimes, even when our child is at a common starting age and seems to have hit the right point developmentally, she still may not be engaging with books, letters, or text enough to warrant beginning reading instruction. If this is the case for you, it is totally ok! Just keep reading wonderful books to her and slip in playing some fun informal literacy skill games!

What does this kind of interest look like?

  • Your child requests that books be read to her.
  • Your child can retell portions of the story and likes to play out scenes from a book.
  • Your child notices letters and numbers in her environment and understands that they express ideas.
  • Your child points to words and asks what they say or attempts to “spell” some of her own words to express her own ideas.

While everything listed above is not required to begin kindergarten work with your child, it’s a great starting point to assess whether what you’re wanting to do is what your child is ready to receive. And while I said that it’s a bit frustrating to hear this, as your child comes to the right age, right interest, and right place developmentally, you will naturally sense his readiness and know that the timing is perfect to begin his official “kindergarten” experience!