Six-year-old Justin D. of Denville is thriving in his kindergarten class this year, just as his mother, Lisa, intended. His September birthday actually met his school’s enrollment cut-off date, meaning he could have entered last year, at age 5. But Lisa opted for him to remain in preschool instead. “I think waiting the one year made a tremendous difference for him as far as social skills go, and also in his speech development,” she says now of her decision.
Perhaps you’re considering postponing the kindergarten enrollment of your age-eligible child as well? It’s not uncommon. This practice is commonly referred to as “red-shirting,” or at least that’s what it’s called in the world of college sports when an athlete sits out a year or more in order to lengthen eligibility. Preface red-shirting with the word “academic,” and you have a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. But are you really doing your child a favor by having him “sit on the bench,” so to speak?
“Depends on the child,” says Lillian G. Katz, PhD, co-director of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting, and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There is such a distinction between academic and intellectual goals for young children, and when and whether a child has achieved them. That alone can play an enormous role in determining if he or she is ready for kindergarten or even first grade.”
More boys than girls
Only 9 percent of children were being red-shirted back in the mid-’90s. But by 2007, 16.4 percent of children entering kindergarten were age 6 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The jump likely has to do with schools’ increasing emphasis on academic achievement and parents’ growing attentiveness to their kids’ emotional needs. And since boys’ neurological maturity occurs slightly later than girls’, it’s no surprise they represent the lion’s share of these statistics—especially if their birthday happens to fall in the latter half of the year.
December birthday girl Molly S. of Maplewood is by far the youngest child in her third-grade class. That’s because she started school in New York (which has a later cut-off date than New Jersey) and moved here at the end of first grade. Some kids in her class are as much as 14 months older than she is. She also has a sister with a September birthday who started kindergarten this year; she, too, is 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’s worked out for us,” says their mother, Anna. The only issue she can recall was when Molly was in second grade and her handwriting compared unfavorably to others’ in a classroom display. Now, a year later, her fine-motor skills have caught up with the older children’s, and her handwriting shows no difference.
For parents sitting on the fence about red-shirting 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 is a benefit from red-shirting in the first year or years, by third grade any differences between the children held back and those not is minimal—and often nonexistent,” says Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the NAEYC.
Postponing kindergarten: yes or no?
Should you postpone the start of kindergarten for your child? It’s an individual decision, and you know your child best. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
- Check out your intended school’s kindergarten-readiness screening procedures or tests to get an estimation of how your child may fare.
- Ask a teacher what is expected of incoming kindergartners and how you might help your child prepare.
- Listen to advice from your child’s preschool teacher regarding your child’s readiness. Ask: What are my child’s weak points? In what areas does he surpass expectations?
- Investigate the nature of a prospective kindergarten program. Is it very formal with rows of desks, or slightly less structured? Informal learning centers can accommodate a greater developmental range of children than whole-class instruction.
- Take class size into account. A very shy child might be overwhelmed by a large group but adapt readily in a setting numbering 20 children or fewer.
- Consider where your child would spend a “red-shirt” year. If this “extra year” before kindergarten is spent in a high-quality setting that nurtures the development of skills necessary for school success, it can be a positive experience.
- Let a summer or fall birthday automatically dictate your decision regarding your child’s kindergarten readiness.
- Make your child aware of your own apprehensions. Whether you hold him back or not, approach either decision with confidence and enthusiasm.
Freelance writer June Allan Corrigan is a former kindergarten teacher and mother of two school-age children.