Justin started kindergarten later than the other kids in his preschool class. His mom Lisa held him back a year. But it wasn’t because Justin was too young—he met his school’s age cut-off date for kindergarten entry. Instead, she waited to enroll Justin to keep him in preschool longer, making him one of the oldest, rather than one of the youngest, in his new kindergarten class. 

It’s a trend called redshirting—which got its name from college sports, where an athlete sits out a year or more in order to lengthen eligibility—and has become a popular, if controversial, practice. And it shows no signs of slowing down. 

The Debate

But are you really doing your child a favor by having him “sit on the bench” for an extra year? Sam Wang, PhD,  Princeton neuroscientist and co-author of the book Welcome to Your Child’s Brain and a widely-discussed New York Times op-ed called “Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril,” says no.  

“Generally speaking, children benefit intellectually and socially from being with slightly more advanced peers. Contrary to the idea behind redshirting, it usually is good for children to be on the young end,” explains Wang. “The exception is when they are too far behind to benefit from being with older kids. However, this is hardly ever the case.” 

But the academic world is split. In his influential book Outliers, renowned author and investigative journalist Malcolm Gladwell  says most parents “think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t… The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.” Even, he argues, through college. He cites a study by economists Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey which finds that the oldest kids in the class consistently scored better on a common standardized test than those born later, and that the youngest kids in class were under-represented in college by almost 12 percent.  

To emphasize just how common redshirting has become, consider this: Only nine percent of children were held back in the mid-’90s, but by 2007, 16.4 percent of those entering kindergarten were six or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And since boys’ social, emotional and physical maturity occurs slightly later than girls’, it’s no surprise they represent the lion’s share of those who are held back, especially if their birthdays fall just before the NJ cut-off date of October 1 or later. 

Do You Really Need to Hold Her Back?

When December birthday girl Molly of Maplewood was in third grade, she was by far the youngest child in her class. That’s because she started school in New York, which at the time had a later cut-off than New Jersey, where she moved at the end of first grade. Some kids were as much as 14 months older. Molly also has a sister with a September birthday who started kindergarten early, and she too was the youngest in her class. 

“I didn’t hold either of my girls back. They’re both very verbal and actually quite tall for their ages, so it worked out well for us,” says their mother, Anna. The only issue she can recall is when Molly was in second grade and her handwriting compared unfavorably to others. A year later, her fine motor skills had caught up with those of the older kids, and her handwriting showed no difference.

For parents on the fence over whether or not to redshirt, it may be comforting to note that Molly’s experience dovetails neatly with data compiled by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “Our research shows that even if there’s a benefit from redshirting to a child in the first year or years, by third grade any differences between kids held back and those not is minimal, and often nonexistent,” says Kyle Snow, who until January was the director of the Center for Applied Research at the NAEYC. 

The Do’s and Don’ts

So the question remains—should you or shouldn’t you? It’s a personal decision, and you know your child best. But, keep these do’s and don’ts in mind: 

•  DON’T let a summer or fall birthday automatically dictate your decision regarding kindergarten readiness.

•  DO check out your school’s kindergarten screening procedures or tests to get an idea of how your child may fare.

•  DO ask a teacher what’s expected of incoming kindergartners and how you might help your kid prepare.

•  DO listen to advice from your kid’s preschool teacher about how prepared she seems for the next step.

 • DON’T  make your child aware of your own concerns and fears. Whether you hold him back or not, approach either decision with confidence and enthusiasm.

• DO investigate the nature of a prospective kindergarten program. Is it formal with rows of desks, or slightly less structured? Informal learning centers can accommodate a greater developmental range of kids than whole-class instruction, Katz says.

• DO take into account class size. A very shy child might be overwhelmed by a large group but be fine in a class with fewer than 20 kids.

• DO consider where your child would spend a redshirt year. If this extra year before kindergarten is in a high-quality setting that nurtures the development of skills necessary for school success, it can be a very positive experience, says Snow. 

No matter what you decide in the end, rest assured that it isn’t a make-or-break for how well your kid will do in grade school, college and beyond. So trust yourself and don’t sweat it too much. She’ll turn out just fine.

June Allan Corrigan is a freelance writer and former kindergarten teacher. She has two children.

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