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Delaying Kindergarten "RED Shirting," Healthy or Harmful?

Updated on February 21, 2014
Tracy Lynn Conway profile image

Tracy has been working in the field of education for many years specializing in both Waldorf and Montessori methodologies.


Red shirting is the term given to a young student that delays the start of kindergarten or the move from kindergarten to 1st grade and instead repeats a year of kindergarten. The negative connotation given to the term “red shirting” comes from the perception that holding a child back is being done by parents in order give their child an academic advantage against younger classmates. Many studies have shown that there are advantages to being one of the older students in a grade, while other studies show that the challenge of being the youngest member of the class might in fact be ideal. In the end the parent and school make the decision on an individual basis, based primarily on the readiness of the individual child to succeed in either kindergarten or first grade rather than to give the child a competitive edge.

Historically, young boys and girls would begin kindergarten based on their age. At this time they would leave the nurturing environment of home and enter the more challenging and stimulating world of school. Each school sets a cutoff age at which it determines that most children would be ready to make this big life change. In public school this age cut off was simply accepted, however in private schools a greater deal of consideration was made as to the “readiness” of the individual child. In private schools it was sometimes decided that a kindergartener was not yet ready to either begin kindergarten or move from kindergarten to 1st grade, this is a decision made by an experienced teacher. However, the final choice would be made by the parent after consultation with the teachers and sometimes other academic psychology experts.

In the past “red shirting” might carry a stigma, it was called being “held back” and might deter a parent from making that choice.

Today, in many instances parents disagree with the recommendation to redshirt a child and insist that the child be moved up to 1st grade along with his peers. In this scenario the problem would present itself to the 1st grade teacher who is tasked with trying to manage a child who is clearly not ready for the 1st grade, not to mention the classmates who are affected by a child in need of extra attention.

There are arguments both pro and con for redshirting; each expert has their statistically proven argument. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers”, gives inarguable proof that in Canadian Hockey, children with earlier birthdays have a huge advantage, so much so that children with later birthdays might as well not even try to make it to Professional Hockey. But does this advantage cross over into an academic setting? Some studies have shown that the older members of a classroom have a greater level of confidence and conversely the younger members are less confident. Biology and neuroscience experts warn against redshirting and instead argue that children thrive in a challenging environment and that “challenge” is a significant stimulus for learning.

The Montessori classroom consists of mixed grades, students "move-up" when they are deemed "ready."
The Montessori classroom consists of mixed grades, students "move-up" when they are deemed "ready." | Source

'Common sense' might lie somewhere in the middle between these arguments and studies. If we look at a large family or a mixed age classroom, such a Montessori classroom, we see a completely different set of rules. Age becomes less a factor for anything. Competition pales to cooperation, support and guidance. One size does not fit all and trying to measure and statistically justify why some children will excel whether they are older by 2 months or younger, might prove to be far more problematic than what statistics attempt to prove. It is important to note that Montessori teachers thoroughly assess a student’s readiness to “move up” as well.

There are many good reasons to redshirt a child. Some children might have failed to gain the needed foundation during kindergarten which would enable them to succeed in a challenging 1st grade classroom. One explanation for the increase in “redshirting” could simply be that the pace of education has changed a lot in the last 25 years. Children now begin reading in kindergarten, and they are expected to be reading by the time they walk into a first grade classroom. Kindergarten used to be a half day, play oriented environment meant only as an introduction to school. Now kindergarten is most often full day and children are actively learning how to read and are expected to complete daily homework assignments. The demands are greater and could easily account for keeping a less academically able child back, or redshirting. This child might have missed out on learning core reading foundational skills and might simply need another year to be “ready.”


A child on the ADHD spectrum might also present a problem with moving onto the challenging first grade environment because they were unable to concentrate long enough to gain their these fundamental skills. An experienced kindergarten teacher would know which of her students is ready to make this big transition and which are not.

The decision as to whether a child begins kindergarten or moves up to first grade at a certain age needs to depend, primarily, on the experienced judgment of the child’s teacher, testing, perhaps additional experts, and of course the child’s parents. If this has the stigma of “red shirting”, so be it. There are a lot worse things to be labeled. Perhaps instead of seeing this as a trend that would give certain children an advantage, we can look at it as a more individualized learning plan, instead of the “one size fits all” model that tries to fit everyone into a box.


Do you feel that red shirting can be beneficial?

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© 2014 Tracy Lynn Conway


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