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Kindergarten 'Redshirting': A Leg Up or an Unfair Advantage?

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, PhD
August is flying by. All too soon a new school year will begin, and with it will come the same mixed feelings and buzz of energy that surrounded the end of the school year. Besides the traditional anxieties of getting to the bus stop on time and remembering to pack a healthy lunch, for many parents of kindergarten-age students, there is another anxiety, this one with much higher stakes than being tardy on the first day of school: When should you enroll your child in kindergarten?   

When we were kids, most US children started school at 5 years old.  It's a much bigger decision now, with controversy and even politics on both sides of the issue.
I followed the old rule and kept it simple.  I enrolled my son in kindergarten for one reason: He was 5 years old, and being five meant going to kindergarten.  He started school two days after his late August birthday in 2009. To me, it was a no-brainer. From the start, there were good signs: In the first week of kindergarten he met his (still) best friend, and their birthdays are less than a week apart!  They were instant buddies. 

But the naïve bubble in which I was living soon burst. 

Their birthdays are within a week of each other, in two different years.  His newfound chum was an entire year older than him and there were kids in his class who were nearly 18 months older than him (At age five, that's almost a third of your life older!)  Evidently, it was not as simple as I thought.

How much did you (or do you) think about when to start your son or daughter in kindergarten?  Is your child one of the youngest or the oldest in the class?  Have you heard the term redshirting?

Redshirting, a term borrowed from sports, refers to the practice of postponing entry into school with the intention of giving a child a maturational advantage (or a "leg-up" as Morley Safer reported in a March broadcast of CBS’s 60 Minutes).

There are many perspectives on the issue.  Some parents have the "luxury" of agonizing over the issue of when their child should start school.  Others do not have that advantage.  It is often not a choice for parents on tight budgets, who are more likely to start their children as early as possible to eliminate child-care costs.  And, sadly, many of those kids begin school less prepared than those from more affluent households because they did not have the opportunity to engage in all of the kindergarten readiness "extras."  

Schools have an opinion on this as well.  Holding kids back might help with standardized test scores, which have mattered dramatically since the No Child Left Behind legislation was enacted.  That is the primary political issue related to redshirting.

There are "experts" on both sides of the issue.  Some advise starting your child early because they are ready to learn, are advanced beyond the preschool curriculum, and may be bored if they wait to begin school.  Others endorse starting your child late because they will have an academic advantage, will be among the bigger kids in their class (more relevant to decisions about boys’ entry age), will have more developed social skills, and will be better athletes and leaders.

I am first an advocate of starting your child "on time" at age 5.  If, for some good reason, that doesn’t work, I am an advocate of the in-between, "know your child" rule.  To expect that the reasons to start or not start a child in kindergarten at a certain age will result in some predictable list of outcomes is likely unrealistic.  Yes, some who start late will be at the top of the class and some will be at the bottom; some will be more behaviorally mature and some will not; some will be star athletes and some will not.  Similarly, among those who start on time, some will thrive in various areas and some will not. 

To make a decision when your child is 4 years old because of some expectations for the child (the best college, the best athlete) may not be the best approach and can lead to unfulfilled expectations for the child and  disappointment for the parent.  The law of averages would suggest that it all washes out in the end.  In fact, by third or fourth grade, some researchers have demonstrated that many of the early differences wash out. 

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, contributed to the controversy, but ironically, Gladwell later stated in an interview, "Will we look back and say, what were we thinking?"

Confused?  Or, just curious?  Consider the following:   
  • Socially: How does your child interact with other kids?
  • Academically/Cognitively: Does your child have the basics of letter recognition, colors, and shapes?  Look into your school district’s kindergarten curriculum and ask questions.  Also, look into state and local laws that govern the age range for beginning kindergarten—some do exist.
  • Emotionally: Can your child emotionally handle kindergarten?  Is kindergarten half day or full day?  If a full day is required, is your child ready for a seven-hour school day?  What is his or her preschool experience—some, none, multiple years?
  • Physically: One concern of parents who start their kids on the earlier end of the spectrum is that their kids (especially boys) will be among the smallest.  Are there any physical considerations that you need to take into account?
What do you think about redshirting?  Is it "educational quackery" as one expert stated on 60 Minutes, and done at your "child’s peril" as reported by The New York Times (September 2011)?  Or, is it providing opportunities for leadership and success as described by another expert in the 60 Minutes segment?

Are we too concerned with what we think our children should be?  Or is that our job?  What are the advantages or disadvantages of starting "on time"…of starting later?  Specifically, do you think starting "on time" puts kids at a disadvantage if they are grouped with kids who are starting significantly later?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.