Dr. Sarah M. Coyne
Note: This article originally appeared on Parentsware.com in January, 2015.
When my third child, Aidan, was born in July, one of the first thoughts that went through my mind was “Should I send him to kindergarten on time?” This was pretty ridiculous to be thinking for a child not even a day old. However, Aidan will be 5-years-old this July and is due to enter kindergarten later this year. So, all of a sudden the decision has become very real.
Holding back children from entering kindergarten on time is known as “academic redshirting”. This practice has been increasing for a number of years, with more and more parents choosing to wait to send their 5-year old to kindergarten. The practice is more common for boys who have summer birthdays (like my Aidan), and in children who come from white, higher socio-economic families (Bassock & Reardon, 2013). Parents report redshirting to give their child an advantage in life in terms of popularity, sports, academics, and more, especially for those who may appear immature during preschool. However, research shows that children who end up getting redshirted actually score better on academic measures than their peers in preschool. There was also NO relationship with developmental concerns. This one baffled me as it means that the “smarter” kids are the ones that are actually being held back, suggesting that many parents have other motives than just helping a “slower to mature” child catch up (Bassok, & Reardon, 2013).
This year Aidan has been in preschool. Literally, every single other boy in his class was old enough to go to kindergarten last year, making Aidan more than a year younger than every other boy in his class (and almost two years younger in some cases!) So now panic mom mode sets in – Aidan will be SO young compared to all the other kids! He’ll be smaller! Maybe he won’t do as well academically? Maybe he won’t fit in as well? Maybe he won’t be as good at sports? Maybe he’ll get bullied? What if this one decision to send him sets him up for a spiral of academic failure for the rest of his life?????
So I did what every reasonable mom does – post a message on Facebook asking other parents advice. Immediately, I got dozens of responses. Parents feel very strongly both ways. Many lauded the benefits for their own children – they reported that they seemed to do better socially, academically, and were the biggest kids so had advantages in sports. Others spoke of being the youngest in their grade and the benefits they saw. So in sum, Facebook (not surprisingly), left me feeling more confused than ever.
I called Aidan’s preschool teacher next. She said that Aidan would likely be ready for kindergarten by the fall and would probably do just fine. There were a few minor concerns about how shy he can be, though, so she also said it wouldn’t hurt him to hold him back another year. So again, kind of a split decision.
So I did what I always do – turn to the research. I’m a child development scholar and do research for a living and feel there is great value in knowing the real studies on any given topic. I read many different studies and then actually did my own research with some data we have. My own data involves our Flourishing Families study which follows 500 adolescents from when they were 10 years old until they were 18 years old. I wanted to find out how the youngest in each grade fared compared to the oldest (who were redshirted). What I found fascinated me. I’ve summarized it below for you.
There is a definite advantage that first year of kindergarten. Kids who are redshirted do better academically in a number of different areas, including reading, spelling, vocabulary, etc (Bickel, et al., 1991; Jones et al., 1990;Huang et al., 2012; Langer et al., 1984). However, these benefits start to diminish by the end of kindergarten (Huang et al., 2012) and almost completely disappear by the 3rd grade (Stipek, 2002). My own research revealed that the oldest kids in each grade reported going through puberty earlier than their peers. There are some advantages to being an early maturing boy (in terms of popularity and sports), but there are also some problems as detailed later. And being an early maturing girl can be very hard on children (just ask my friend Mindy Taylor who was nearly 6 feet tall in the 6th grade!) I know many parents are concerned about their child playing sports, but I couldn’t find any research that addressed this particular issue. We do know that early maturing boys do tend to do better at sports, so there will be an indirect link at the very least.
Or not to redshirt?
A number of studies suggest that children who start earlier and who benefit from a stimulating school environment actually gain a valuable head start in terms of cognitive development (e.g., Mayer & Knutson, 1999; Vygotsky, 1978). Indeed children who start school later may miss out on very beneficial early childhood experiences provided by schools (Karweit, 1988; May et al., 1994). Children who do seriously struggle may actually benefit from that early year of intervention offered by many schools, compared to those who wait to get help. This only works if your child doesn’t go to a crappy school, so that is definitely something to consider.
There are also some advantages to being younger. Research shows that those boys with summer birthdays (who are NOT redshirted) end up with higher wages in adulthood (Angrist & Krueger, 1991; Lincove & Painter, 2005), as they gain an extra year in the workforce. An examination of my own data found some very interesting patterns. Remember, this is across 8 years and involving a large group of adolescents. The youngest children in the class showed higher levels of hope, prosocial behavior, integrity and gratitude. And the strongest finding of all revealed that they were more likely to be engaged in school during the high school years (emotionally, behaviorally, and cognitively), suggesting that older children tend to “check out” a little earlier. Not helpful for those college entrance exams.
I also found NO differences at all between the groups in terms of GPA during middle school and high school, whether they were bullied, anxiety level, empathy, self-esteem, shyness, perseverance, or leadership skills. These are all things that parents who redshirt their children describe as reasons why they hold their children back, but there appears to be no evidence of a relationship. Indeed, the research does “not support the widespread use of [redshirting] for increasing readiness” (Graue & DiPerna, 2000; p. 509) as there are no documented long term advantages in life.
A number of studies also show some negative outcomes for those who are the oldest in the class, including behavioral problems and aggression (Byrd et al., 1997). Indeed, my own data from Flourishing Families consistently revealed that the oldest children in each age group were more likely to be physically aggressive, depressed, and become involved in delinquent behavior.
After doing all this research, my husband and I have confidently decided to send Aidan to kindergarten next year. We have to lower our expectations that first year as his peers will do better than him. And I’ve decided that’s okay. By 3rd grade it will all have evened out and I don’t think Harvard will be looking at his kindergarten reading skills. I’ve also decided I don’t really care if he’s the captain of the football team his senior year in high school, as it is possible he won’t be the biggest kid in his class. That doesn’t motivate me in the slightest. Besides, tennis is a much better sport anyway! 😉 I’ve decided that I don’t want Aidan to do well in life because he just happens to be older and stronger than his peers. I want him to do well because he learns to work hard, to truly care and to empathize with others, and to never, ever give up.
After doing all this research, I’m actually troubled by this increasing trend. No matter what, somebody always has to be the youngest. However, we are now seeing an almost 2 year age gap in some classes. This isn’t fair to the teacher who has to manage so many different ages and it’s not fair to the kids (both the oldest and the youngest ones). I just wonder when it will stop. For example, most children would do REALLY well in kindergarten if we all started them at 10 years old. They would definitely be the biggest and the strongest kids in school. They would definitely be the smartest. That doesn’t mean we should do it. There is such a culture of hyper-competitiveness of parents in America right now and I think the practice of redshirting to give children a supposed advantage in life is fueling this way of thinking.
Now before you go crazy on me, I do think there are legitimate reasons for not sending your child to kindergarten on time. Countless studies show that there are some serious consequences to repeating a grade, even at younger ages (Hauser, 2000; Holmes, 1989). So, if you are concerned that your child will fail kindergarten – seriously fail it, then that is a great reason to wait that extra year. However, anecdotally, most parents who redshirt their children do not do it for this reason.
This post will probably make a lot of people upset, as I know a lot of parents redshirt their children. We all are doing what we think is best for our children, and there is no shame in that. This decision is driven by love and caring, and that is a good thing. However, I wanted to show you the actual research on the topic in case some of you are in the same position I am in right now. Let’s all become better informed on the topic and not to decide to hold back our children, just because “everyone else is doing it”. That adds a peer pressure to my parenting that I simply don’t need. Many people told me to follow my gut – which is what I did…..after reading the real research.
This is probably the article that I get the most requests for so I wanted to provide a little update. Aidan is now in 4th grade and is THRIVING. He was a little lower than some of his older peers on reading during the first few years, but now has completely caught up. He loves school and I’m glad we sent him when we did. This is a tough choice for parents so I hope that learning about some of the research was helpful for you in your decision.