Kindergarten Redshirts

Photo chomnancoffee,

Photo chomnancoffee,

School starts this week and a lot of families will be getting a late start–on purpose.

No, I’m not talking about those people who simply choose to extend their summers until after Labor Day, the way God intended. I’m talking about the people who decide to give their children an extra year filled with preschool or playtime before the academic rigors of kindergarten begin.

This graying of kindergarten is an interesting phenomenon. For many parents–especially the upper-middle class ones who can afford to stomach the extra year of preschool on the front end and extra year of supporting a child on the back end until s/he graduates from high school or college–the calculation goes something like this: you look at your four-year-old darling, especially if he’s a boy–because they tend to be squirrelier and less verbal when they’re little–and realize that his summer or fall birthday means that he’ll be younger than most of the other kids in his kindergarten class. So you decide to send him to school a year later. Then he’s at the older end of his class, with the presumption that his added maturity will give him an edge from grade to grade.

Private schools have a later birthday cutoff, but even in public school sometimes principals or teachers may suggest waiting another year to start is in your child’s best interest.

Not to mention their own.

One kindergarten teacher I know, Tammy, was nervous about commenting (which is why all of these names are pseudonyms), but did offer this, “All I can say is I’m really NOT into parents starting their kids at age four (turning five in the fall). That’s the worst.”

And as a parent, there is nothing worse than watching one kid who is not ready to be in school dominate all of the teacher’s attention for an entire year.

“I do believe that if a child is really immature, cannot hold a pencil, write their name, color a page and stay within the lines pretty well, cannot sit down long enough to listen to a story, cannot retell one fact from the story, and cannot follow a few simple instructions, then another year would be good for them to practice these steps in preschool,” says Chandra, another kindergarten teacher.

The other part of this equation is that “kindergarten is the new first grade,” according to many educators. Although most adults remember kindergarten as an idyllic year of naps, snacks and feeding the class hamster, it has become more and more academically demanding. With the advent of “No Child Left Behind” the pressure to teach things earlier and earlier gets even worse.

An estimated nine percent of children nationally are entering kindergarten a year later than they could, though there’s little evidence that children perform better in school if they start late.

But the decision to redshirt is such an individual one, and the research on the academic side–while mounting as a topic worthy of interest and study, especially since almost half the states have pushed back their birthday cutoffs since 1975–is still unclear.

At the same time, no one that I spoke to who redshirted their child regretted it.

“I absolutely did it,” says Wendy, whose son’s birthday is in late November. “Best thing I ever did. Especially with a boy. I have a girlfriend that did the opposite and her son is always the ‘baby’ of the class, and although she doesn’t see it, he suffers greatly for it. Pure immaturity. And they get meaner as they get older.”

To some professionals, redshirting children is necessary because kindergartens are more concerned with academics than with the emotional and physical development of youngsters. To others, the practice is not much better than coddling.

“I found that with some kids they acted young because their parents babied them, so it did not matter if they were one year older or not,” says Yvonne, another teacher friend.

Sometimes families decide to redshirt for reasons unique to their family dynamics. I have one friend, Darlene, who held back her second son because otherwise he and his older brother would have been one grade apart, and she didn’t want them competing so closely on the academic, social and athletic playing fields.

It’s no accident that the term “redshirt” comes from athletics, since the one place where redshirting is a proven advantage is on the sports field. Up until a few years ago the birthday cutoff date for Little League was July 31, which is a lot better explanation than astrology for the fact that 60 percent more Major League Baseball players are born in August than in July.

Aside from stacking the sports odds in favor of kids, experts also worry that redshirting puts low-income students at an extra disadvantage. The children who end up going to school young because their parents can’t afford to hold them back are also the ones with the least preparation and lowest rates of participation in preschool. Then those children arrive at school and have to compete with older, better prepared students whose parents may demand more challenging classrooms so their kids aren’t bored.

Still, parents are understandably more concerned with their own child than the bigger picture.

“Around the teenage years, it really starts to suck when your child is a full year younger than all his friends,” says Lola, whose son is entering high school having just turned14. “All the friends who are a year older start to like members of the opposite sex, start growing hair in lot of new places, think their parents are idiots, don’t want to play video games anymore, want to be downtown all the time and get their driver’s license long before your child who is the correct age for their grade. This leaves the correct age for their grade child feeling inadequate to say the least, not to mention lost and confused.”

Of course no one wants their child to have any disadvantages, which is why my friend Angie might have the best idea of all. “My recommendation to parents would be to have babies born between October-March.”

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 22, 2008.

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