Deciding whether to send your young child to kindergarten can be confusing—and emotional. Central Ohio educators offer some advice.

For parents of young children, the start of the new year is associated with another milestone: kindergarten registration. But if your child turns 5 this summer, there's a lot more to consider than when they'll bring their birthday treat to class.

Parents whose children are eligible for kindergarten this fall must weigh whether they'll send a young 5-year-old or wait another year, since many of their peers may already have turned 6. It's not always an easy decision.

In Ohio, a child must turn 5 by either Aug. 1 or Sept. 30, whichever cutoff date their school district uses. Most districts in Central Ohio adhere to the latter, including Columbus, Dublin, Hilliard, South-Western and Westerville. Those who use Aug. 1 include New Albany-Plain Local, Grandview Heights and Gahanna-Jefferson. All children must be enrolled in school by age 6.

Brittany and David Garner faced a dilemma when their son, Landon, turned 5 in August 2016. The family lives near Hilliard, in the Columbus City Schools district. “The cutoff was Sept. 30. That was one reason we went ahead with sending him. He had more than a month of wiggle room. There might have been kids his age or even a month younger,” she said.

They decided to send Landon, who had attended a preschool program through their day care provider. But they soon noticed he was a bit behind his peers. “I had to remind myself that he was 5, but just 4 years old the previous month,” Garner said. “He was young and a boy. We progressed through the year and worked with the teacher to help him, but it was a constant battle the entire year. He just wanted to talk a lot.”

Barbara Wallace, executive director of elementary academic affairs for Westerville City Schools, encourages parents who are on the fence to step back and look at the whole child. “Look at the child's ability to transition from one activity to another without having emotional distress,” Wallace said. “Look at your child's ability to take direction from someone other than you. Look at your child's readiness of separating from you. Think about the environment you're putting your child in.”

Brian Bowser, executive director of elementary education for South-Western City School District, said one of the biggest pitfalls is when parents waver on their decision. “Kids pick up on our stress, so I tell parents to make a decision and love it,” he said. “The children are adaptable and fine. They'll be fine with what you choose.”

Jenni Fisher, who teaches all-day kindergarten at Alcott Elementary School in Westerville, said the Sept. 30 date sometimes seems too late, since students now head to class several weeks earlier than in years past. She said the biggest difference between older and younger students is social maturity. “Especially if they are the baby of their family, they are used to being catered to and they don't have to share their toys as much,” Fisher said. “Then coming into a class of 26 kids, they don't understand that they are not the only one in the room. They also have to share the room and share the attention.”

Columbus City Schools has several tactics to prepare students for kindergarten. One newer venture is the Linden Park Neighborhood Early Childhood Education Center, a pre-K program for 4- and 5-year-olds. “One of the most obvious things we notice is that kids involved in some type of early childhood program, whether with Columbus City Schools or a private provider, seem to be a little more ready and have some more readiness skills,” said Candace Nespeca, the center's principal and supervisor. “This high-quality pre-K is really invaluable.”

Nespeca recommends parents check out the district's Countdown to Kindergarten event in May, where each child receives a bag of books and activities. “Even if the kid is close to the Sept. 30 cutoff, we'd like them to consider going ahead and registering for kindergarten.” she said. “Our teachers are ready to accept 5-year-olds.”

The Garners' son finished kindergarten and went on to first grade, since his test scores were on track. They enrolled him in Jonathan Alder Local Schools, where Brittany Garner teaches middle school and they plan to build a home. After just three days, they decided he needed another year of kindergarten to get him on-par with his classmates. “The teacher says he knows how to count to 100, and he knows his letters,” Garner said. “The teacher has assured me that he is in the right spot. He raises his hand because he knows the answer, he plays with his peers. He has had a lot of progress and is caught up in reading level. I would rather him be ahead in this class than be the lowest one in his other class.”

Wallace said the choice is not solely based on age, but on knowing your child. “If you think there's a possibility that another year in a preschool would do them good, then err on the side of giving them another year to get ready,” she said. “If you have questions, take the time to call the school your child will attend and talk to the principal. Have the conversation about what you're seeing with the child and what is the best option, and go from there.”