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Should Redshirting Be Allowed: What Age Should Kids Start Kindergarten?
Spring is in the air, and parents of soon-to-be 5-year-olds are being asked the question: “Will you hold your child back from kindergarten?” In days gone by, the sign of the smartest kid was that he was the youngest - he had skipped a grade to advance more quickly through school. Nowadays, parents are purposely holding their children back so they will be the oldest. Fears of their kids being the youngest (and smallest) and the desire to give them the best possible chance at success, drive parents to delay their children’s entrance kindergarten.
As the numbers of kids being held back is increasing, people are asking: Should redshirting based on age alone be allowed? Does it really help these younger children? Is it fair?
What is Redshirting and How Did This Trend Start?
The term redshirting originated in college sports: athletes are held back from playing on a team so that they can grow bigger and stronger before entering competitive sports in hopes that they will be stronger athletes.
Redshirting for kindergarten had similar origins, with parents holding back their younger children in hopes that they would become star athletes later on. Malcolm Gladwel’s 2008 Outliers: The Story of Success, claims that the month of someone’s birth can predict how successful they will be. He points to the observation that the majority of Canadian all-star hockey players were born in the first half of the year. Canada’s cutoff for school is January 1, so those students were bigger, perceived as better, and got more attention than their peers. Those children, he asserts, have a slight edge that stays with them throughout their lives.
Nowadays, parents are holding back their 5 year olds from kindergarten so they can be older and bigger when entering school, with the hopes that they will be more physically, emotionally, and intellectually ready for kindergarten. While this practice has been in place for decades, it has risen dramatically and now about 17% of kindergarten students are held back from kindergarten (up from 5 percent in 1970).
Reasons Parents Hold Kids Back
- Developmental Delays. Some children are held back from kindergarten because they have developmental delays or learning problems. These children may need more time to develop skills to be ready for the kindergarten.
- Sports and Academics. For the vast majority of redshirted children (predominantly boys), delaying kindergarten is purely optional. While some parents continue to redshirt for sports reasons, many other are simply holding their child back in hopes that their older, bigger, more mature child will have a better chance of success down the road. The idea is that giving them another year to develop emotionally and physically will ease the transition and boost their chances of being ahead of the pack.
- Kindergarten Too Rigorous. An increasingly cited reason for redshirting is that kindergarten has become too academic and rigorous. Historically, kindergarten has been focused on getting children used to school, learning to follow rules, proper behavior in the classroom, and how to act with their friends and peers. With increased focus on standardized tests, kindergarten has become more focused on preparing students for the academic rigors ahead. Parents, especially of younger children, fear that this new rigor might be too challenging for their children.
- Social Reasons Down the Road. Some parents hold their child back because they are worried that being the youngest in middle and high school can lead to social pressures too early. They worry that their child will be pushed to date and drink at a younger age than their peers. Or, they worry that the child will feel left out, being the last one to obtain their drivers licence or to develop physically.
- Peer Pressure. With the increased attention to redshirting, stories and reports about about parents who assumed their child would attend kindergarten in the fall only to find peers questioning their decision. This is especially true of parents of boys born in the summer, where the assumption is starting to be that they will be held back. Many parents in this group seem to be making the decision for no other reason than “it’s what everyone is else doing.”
- Kids are Only Little Once. Some parents hold their children back simply to allow their children to be “little” a bit longer. The beginning of kindergarten signals the beginning of a new phase in children’s lives, and some parents rather extend that period rather than “rush” their children into the next phase.
Reasons Not to Redshirt
- Benefits are short-term. Some students who are redshirted do seem to have an edge in the early years of school, but these benefits dissipate quickly, with no demonstrated advantages after third grade.
- Children who are held back get bored. Studies have also suggested that reshirted students may in fact do better in kindergarten, but that often they are bored, as what is taught is too easy for them. This can lead to behavioral problems.
- Children with problems may not be identified. Some parents delay entrance to kindergarten with hopes of having a child that is more ready for kindergarten. However, by delaying kindergarten, these parents may be preventing their children with behavioral issues, slight learning disabilities, or other emotional delays from getting needed interventions and services that schools can provide. Redshirting may not cause behavioral problems, but it does not help them either. In fact, research has shown that redshirted kids are more likely to need extra services once in school.
- Children who extend their preschool years are deprived of opportunities to learn and be challenged. Redshirting also means an extra year of preschool or staying at home. For students who are otherwise ready, this can mean a lack of stimulation and opportunities to learn. Kindergarten is a year of incredible growth and change for most students. Many parents describe their kindergarten children as “transformed” demonstrating a whole new level of maturity. Students who are held back are deprived the opportunity to grow in this important developmental phase.
- Expectations of the child being smarter or more successful may not be realized. Many parents who redshirt their children assume that their children, being older and bigger, will be among the highest achieving in their classrooms. But, what happens when the child is merely average? These dashed expectations can be difficult for parents, and for the child.
- Parents may not be qualified to make the decision. Parents, however well-meaning, are often ill-prepared to make this type of decision. Understanding kindergarten readiness is complex, children have strengths and weaknesses (some of which may or may not be important related to kindergarten readiness), and children change quickly. Most schools do not provide this type of assessment, so parents are left to decide on their own (under pressure from their fellow parents), with little formal guidance.
Other Effects of Redshirting
- Redshirting gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy. In most cases, redshirting is a luxury available primarily to the wealthy who can afford to pay for an additional year of preschool. Their children entering school older, with more advanced cognitive abilities that come with age, may worsen the already existing achievement gap (at least in the short term).
- Redshirting increases challenges for Kindergarten teachers. With more students arriving at kindergarten at age 6, kindergarten teachers are having to teach to students with a wider range of skills and abilities. With their 6 year olds in the classroom, some parents can demand more rigorous curricula to meet the needs and abilities of their older children, feeding into a vicious cycle whereby kindergarten is being changed to meet the needs of older children.
- Redshirting creates a vicious cycle. As more parents redshirt their children, the date at which children are considered the "youngest" is moving earlier and earlier. Because increasing numbers of summer kids are being held back, parents of late spring children are now starting to question whether they should also wait a year. These kids may be a full year and half younger than others they will be starting school with.
Should Redshirting be Allowed?
All parents want what is best for their children. And most will do whatever it takes to help their child succeed. Redshirting may be popular because it promises a path to giving a child the best start possible in school. But the evidence is stacked against this idea, showing that for an otherwise ready child, redshirting has more drawbacks than advantages.
The increase in redshirting is also creating a wider span of ages of children entering kindergarten. Children mature at different speeds, but redshirting is artificially expanding the gap between the oldest and youngest students in the classroom, further exaggerating the disadvantage to the youngest and creating new demands on teachers to accommodate this larger age range.
Unless there is a solid, developmental reason to hold a child back, delaying a child from kindergarten does not appear to achieve its promise. What’s more, redshirting does not allow children the opportunity to live up to their full potential. For those who can’t, identifying and addressing the root causes of the problem early can help prevent problems down the road.
Perhaps as more parents redshirt their kids and research becomes more established, this trend will reverse. Until then, parents should carefully consider the impact of redshirting and seek out professional guidance on their decisions.
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