Noncognitive Aspects of School Readiness
What factors help account for variations in knowledge, health, and behavior at school entry?
Who are the children who enter kindergarten with skills that exceed or lag behind those of the average child? Who are the children with significant problems with respect to their health or behavior? The findings in America's Kindergartners demonstrate significant differences in children's early academic skills across pupils of various ages, between girls and boys, as well as between children from high-risk versus more ordinary family circumstances. Age, sex, and family risk factors are also related to some of the observed variation in children's health status and behavior at school entry.
Variation in children's ages is associated with differences in their knowledge, skills, and behavior. The ECLS-K found that nearly two-thirds of kindergartners were between 5 years and 5 years, 8 months as of September 1st of the reference year (1998) (figure 3). Nine percent were not yet 5 years old as of the same date. Nearly one-quarter were almost 6 years old (5 years, 8 months to 5 years, 11 months), and 4 percent were already 6.
The variation in age at entry is primarily due to three causes. First, school systems differ in their policies regarding how old children must be and by what date in order to qualify for kindergarten entry. Second, children are born throughout the year, so some just make and others just miss the cutoff date. Third, some parents choose to delay their children's entry into kindergarten. The ECLS-K findings support the contention (Zill, Loomis, and West 1997) that older students often have advantages with respect to the knowledge and self-regulation skills they bring to the classroom.
A larger majority of the older than the younger children have attained the first level of reading proficiency (recognizing letters of the alphabet), and larger minorities of the older children have passed the higher proficiency levels. The ECLS-K data show the following:
A similar positive relationship between knowledge and age was found with respect to proficiency in early mathematics skills. Here the average older pupil is at a higher proficiency level than the typical pupil in the youngest age group. Specifically:
As with reading and mathematics, the ECLS-K results indicated a positive relationship between age at school entry and performance on the general knowledge assessment. For example:
Although the ECLS-K results showed significant positive relationships between children's age and their reading and mathematics skills and general knowledge, age differences do not account for all of the variation in pupils' knowledge and skills at school entry. Even among kindergartners of the same age, there are considerable differences from pupil to pupil in what each one knows and can do.
Older children have better coordination than do younger children. This is true with respect to both fine motor skills, such as using a pencil to copy a geometric figure, and gross motor skills, such as walking backward on a line or hopping on one foot. The psychomotor assessment showed, for example, that:
The population of first-time kindergartners includes a group of children who are much older than their peers. These children are already 6 at the start of kindergarten and could have begun kindergarten the year before (January-August 1992 births). Children in this older group have higher frequencies of some developmental difficulties. For example, these 6-year-olds are (1) twice as likely as any other age group to have problems with their coordination (8 versus 3-4 percent), and (2) more likely than any other group to have difficulties with speech articulation (18 versus 10-11 percent). This may be one reason why the parents of this group of older children choose to delay their children's entrance to kindergarten by a year.
According to teachers and, to a lesser extent, parents, older children engage in cooperative behavior more frequently than younger children, and are less prone to angry, argumentative, or combative behavior. For example, the results show that:
Parents' ratings of children's positive social behavior show that students who are almost 6 are more likely to easily join others in play than are the youngest kindergartners (87 versus 82 percent). However, according to parents, there is little difference between older and younger kindergartners with respect to making and keeping friends or comforting or helping others. Parents' reports also indicate that fewer older children get angry easily but that no significant age differences exist with respect to the frequency of arguing and fighting with others.
According to teachers and, to a lesser extent, parents, older children exhibit a more positive approach to classroom learning tasks. In teachers' ratings, for example, compared with children not yet 5, larger majorities of those about to become 6 are described as showing eagerness to learn new things (80 versus 66 percent); paying attention well (73 versus 57 percent); and persisting in completing tasks (78 versus 63 percent). Parents' ratings of children's approaches to learning also show age differences with respect to the frequency of working at something until finished but no significant differences with respect to eagerness to learn new things.
With knowledge and skills as well as social maturity, age differences do not explain all or even most of the variation in children at school entry. Nor can the differences account for the bulk of the variation in problem behavior or approaches to learning. Even among kindergartners of the same age, there are considerable differences from pupil to pupil in social skills and behavior.