Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be. What was once a lighthearted atmosphere for learning through play with finger painting, memory games and the Letter People is now a competitive environment made up of testing, worksheets and, yes, even homework. What’s more, kids are expected to be reading by the end of the school year.
In recent years, “redshirting kindergarten,” a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 bestseller, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” has become en vogue to give kids a leg up on the competition. It’s the increasingly popular practice of delaying kids’ entrance into kindergarten by one year.
In his book, Gladwell makes a famous case for academic redshirting using real-world examples. He argues that in competitive situations, a child who’s relatively older than others in his class will have a developmental advantage and, therefore, boost his odds for success in school, sports and in life.
“The theory is in sports, by waiting a year, kids are bigger and stronger,” said Dr. Geoffrey Putt, a pediatric psychologist and director of Akron Children’s outpatient therapy services. “Gladwell projects this same theory in academics, another year gives kids the advantage of being more mature and better cognitively, so they’ll probably do a little bit better than the average child.”
However, naysayers point out negative consequences to this act. By starting kids a year later in school, they are one year farther from achieving their life goals once they graduate and lose an entire year of earning potential. Not to mention, parents have another year of childcare costs to cough up.
According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2010-2011 school year only 6% of kids started kindergarten at age 4, 42% of kids were between 5 and 5½, 43% were between 5½ and 6 years old — and more than 9% of kids starting kindergarten had already turned 6.
“There are areas where redshirting occurs more often, generally in higher socioeconomic status populations,” said Dr. Putt. “In these high-achieving families, they want to give their kids an advantage both in academics and on the field. You might see a 2% rate in poorer communities compared to maybe a 20% rate in affluent neighborhoods. The thing is if everyone does it, there’s no advantage.”
Many school districts are cracking down and not allowing it by putting automatic age restrictions in place. The question remains is it a fact or fad that delaying kindergarten gives kids an advantage?
Dr. Putt argues it’s most likely a fad. There is no evidence to point to any sort of benefit to redshirting kindergarten.
“The studies are mixed. I can’t point to a preponderance of evidence as to whether it’s a good or bad thing,” he said. “When you’re talking about starting kindergarten at a later age, I see it as a personal preference. In fact, some people say kids who have to work harder develop a bit of grit.”
Instead, take a closer look at your child. Get to know her a little bit better and decide if she’s ready. And, remember there’s no wrong choice.
Take a look at her classroom skills, and not just academically. Does she know how to follow directions? Can she sit still and listen? Does she get along with her classmates? If there is a conflict, can she work out those differences on her own?
For a second opinion, ask her preschool teacher.
“No one knows your child better than you,” said Dr. Putt. “If you feel your child is ready emotionally and educationally, then do it and be comfortable with it. If you feel strongly your child is not mature enough and is struggling academically, there doesn’t appear to be any harm waiting one more year.”
Regardless of when your child starts school, her success will depend greatly on you. Get involved in your child’s education both at home and at school. Be hands-on with her learning to ensure she’s exactly where she needs to be in kindergarten — and throughout her academic years.
“Kids are resilient and they’ll catch up,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a marker for absolute readiness. Go with your gut.”