Delaying kindergarten can backfire
‘Redshirting’ involves waiting to enrol a child in school, but they develop at different rates
If all had gone according to plan, my son would have been one of the older kids in his grade throughout his school years. Even though he turned five by our state’s kindergarten cut-off date, we agreed with his preschool teachers’ assessment that he didn’t seem emotionally ready and “redshirted” him by delaying kindergarten for a year.
It worked well for a time, but by Grade 2, his teacher was regularly sending him next door to a Grade 3 classroom for math and reading. Just a few weeks into the school year, she told us he really should be in Grade 3.
I resisted. While the Grade 2 boys still had small traces of softness, the Grade 3 boys had none. Some were a head taller than my son. They wore Nikes and he still wore Stride Rites. With his emotional immaturity and small-kid vulnerability, masked by a tart-tongued bravado, I worried he’d flounder socially with the older kids.
But he was already struggling, I had to admit, as I consoled him one afternoon during a fit of frustration. I asked if it was hard going to Grade 3. He said he wasn’t in Grade 3, or Grade 2, really, and he felt like he didn’t fit anywhere. He was crying, and it pained me that I’d inadvertently created a separate, lonely category for him, making him feel like an outsider in both classrooms.
As we learned, redshirting — even when done with the best of intentions and with input from educational professionals — may need to be reconsidered as your child develops.
The term “redshirting” originally referred to college athletes who sat out their first year to work on their skills without affecting their eligibility. The intent is similar for would-be kindergartners: By providing younger kids an extra year to develop physically, socially and emotionally, the expectation is that they’ll be better equipped to succeed.
Recently, a survey of data collected by
Truven Health MarketScan Research Database between 2007 and 2015, which was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that older kids are less likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than their youngest kindergarten classmates.
That’s in keeping with the results of a 2018 report in Health Economics that Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, co-authored, based on children in Denmark. He found that older kids were better at self-regulation than their youngest peers, who tended to be less attentive and had higher levels of hyperactivity. As Dee explained to me, the extra year “often gives children more extended exposure to play-based environments, (which are) really critical for children’s capacity to develop selfregulation.”
On the flip side, others believe being in the classroom with older peers helps the younger kids develop these skills. “The younger kids kind of look up ... to the older kids and model themselves after that (and) try to keep up,” says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. She acknowledges that younger kids may initially have a harder time with self-control, but, citing a 2016 Education Finance and Policy study she co-wrote, says “they can learn from the older kids how to sit still during story time or stay on task. To the extent that they’re less emotionally mature and physically mature, there are small disadvantages, but in most cases those disadvantages are quickly overcome.”
Moreover, in opting to redshirt, parents are predicting their child’s future readiness for kindergarten, given that enrolment decisions are made many months before the child would start school. But “kids don’t grow in a linear fashion,” Schanzenbach says. “Sometimes, you find yourself … in April or May when you’re trying to make this decision and you think (your kid) is not going to be ready for kindergarten … but then they hit these growth spurts, and they would have done great.”
Part of the challenge is that there isn’t a “magic age at which you should enter kindergarten,” says Hawaii State Rep.
Roy Takumi, a Democrat who served as vice chair of the Education Commission of the States from 2015 to 2017. Some U.S. states set the date as late as Jan. 1 of the kindergarten school year, meaning some kids are four when they start.
“No matter when you set it, you’re always going to have a classroom of kids who have at least 12 months of developmental difference,” says Kristie Kauerz, who directs the National P-3 Center at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado, Denver.
In our case, redshirting seemed to be the best option based on the information we had at the time. But by Grade 2, his situation had changed and being one of the oldest students in his class was no longer working. We needed to re-evaluate, which meant parent-teacher conferences with my son’s Grade 2 teacher, his potential Grade 3 teacher and the principal. Within a few weeks, he was moved ahead to Grade 3.
Kauerz notes that there can be other options besides switching grades. Ideally, a teacher could accommodate a situation like ours by providing differentiated instruction. At a large school, moving a child to a different classroom at the same grade level is a possibility, given that a different mix of students may be a better fit. “These are all conversations (to have with) the teachers and/or the school principal,” Kauerz says. “There really needs to be a team-based approach.”
My son’s teacher was the one who raised the issue, but Kauerz says parents can and should initiate the conversation if it seems as though the current grade isn’t a fit.
As for my son, he recently headed off to university, a bit younger than his classmates, but otherwise no different.
I wish I could have predicted the trajectory of his development and made a different choice initially. As with so many other parenting decisions, though, it was a judgment call and provided a good lesson: Make the best decision you can at the time, be willing to course-correct as needed and know that, as Kauerz says, it’s probably all going to end up OK.
In opting to redshirt, parents essentially guesstimate their child’s readiness for kindergarten long before the child would start school.