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School readiness for children in the United States

Lynnette L Harris, PhD
Section Editors
Teresa K Duryea, MD
Carolyn Bridgemohan, MD
Deputy Editor
Mary M Torchia, MD


Kindergarten entry, the beginning of a child's formal education, is an important developmental milestone. This topic review will broadly discuss factors that affect a child's ability to learn and will describe aspects of family, school, and community systems that support the child's ability to achieve his or her maximal educational potential.


Early school success or failure can affect the child's well-being, self-esteem, and motivation [1]. Because early learning experiences influence the manner in which a child relates to others during the course of his or her life [2,3], it is important to try to ensure that the child begins school when he or she is developmentally ready to participate in classroom activities with the greatest likelihood of success [4].

The idea that all children should start school "ready to learn" was part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act enacted by the United States Congress in 1994 and is the first stated goal of the National Educational Goals Panel (NEGP) which was established in 1990 [5-7]. The idea of "school readiness" has traditionally implied that there is a measurable standard against which a given child's physical, intellectual, and socioemotional functioning can be compared, and that meeting the standard predicts future academic success. Such is not the case. Empiric evidence of such readiness standards does not exist [4], nor is there a consensus among educators about what constitutes readiness [4,8]. (See 'Changes in readiness expectations and curriculum' below.)

Despite the lack of consensus regarding readiness, a national survey of kindergarten teachers reported that 35 percent of their students were not ready to "participate successfully in school" [9]. Problems identified by the teachers that affected school readiness included deficiencies in language, emotional maturity, general knowledge, social confidence, moral awareness, and physical well-being, in decreasing order of importance.

Virtually every child, regardless of physical or mental disabilities, cultural or ethnic background, or prior exposure to educational activities, is capable of learning to some extent and should participate in an educational program [10]. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on School Health and Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care, "all children are entitled to education in an environment where the great variability in early childhood development is understood and supported" [11].


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Oct 6, 2016.
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