The 2021 kindergarten dilemma

Sherri Gardner HowellBlount, Farragut, Kitchen Table Talk

School is in full swing, and the transition from last year’s necessary chaos hasn’t been easy for parents or children.

It has been an area of frequent conversation for grandparents, too, especially those of us with children who are entering kindergarten or first grade.

In my 15 years total (2 children) as the mom of elementary, middle and high school students, I had many, many conversations with parents regarding WHEN to start their children in kindergarten. As a PTA president, columnist for the local newspaper and involved parent in school board meetings, home rooms and all things “school,” I was often asked to weigh in with my thoughts on the right age for children to go to kindergarten, especially with parents whose children were on the cusp of being 5 or 6 years old in late summer or fall.

I almost always refused for the very true and simple reason that I am not an expert in education and carry an inherent belief that there is no one answer for all children. My best answer to these parents may have come across as wishy-washy but was heartfelt: You know your child. Don’t be afraid to give them a challenge if you think they are ready for kindergarten. And don’t be afraid to give them the gift of time if you think they need to wait a year.

But here we are now, following a year where practically no child had a normal school experience, especially those in pre-kindergarten or those already in a kindergarten class that suddenly became a home-learning experience.

Kindergarten has changed so much since the days my sons entered Blue Grass Elementary School. One thing, however, that I don’t believe has changed is that kindergarten is as much about integrating into a classroom setting, a social environment where learning ABCs is but one small goal. Listening, following instructions, figuring out learning styles and modifying behaviors to work with an adult leader and a group of peers is still a lot of what kindergarten is about.

My group of grandparents is not unhappy that the decisions don’t fall to us. Sometimes our children ask us what we think. More often, they do not, just as we didn’t always ask our parents and in-laws for opinions.

But we still talk, worry, watch and compare the rules and experiences that cover not just Tennessee counties, but school districts all across the country. This year we have an interesting mix of new kindergarten kids.

A couple of Tennessee grandparents have older grandchildren who might have been in first grade this year, had last year been a normal year. They aren’t “repeating” kindergarten, because they never really got started in the first place in August of 2020. One went for a week, and then was sent home because of a new outbreak of Covid. The other chose remote learning at home from the start.

Another has a grandchild right on the cusp. She is barely 5 years-old, but lives in a state where the cutoff is July 31, and even then it’s up to the parents, as long as the child is in school by age 6. Her parents decided to give it a try, feeling she was academically ready and hoping the social aspect would be an easy transition for her.

Another has a really young one who will be 5 in a couple of weeks. He has older brothers, however, and has been declaring himself “ready” for school for some time now.

I have two in kindergarten this year, one who is 5 and the other, 6.

So what do we wise, not-graying (thanks to our hairdressers) grandmothers think about all this?

We believe in the resilience of children. We think the kids will be just fine. Their parents may see the beginning of those worry lines that we insist add distinction and beauty to our faces, but whether they are being challenged or given the gift of time, the children will be just fine.

Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons. Her newest adventure is as a travel agent with her own company, SGH Go Travel. Email her at

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