The Waiting Game
Some parents see postponing kindergarten an extra year as a lifesaver for their kids. Other parents view the practice as unfair. Who is right?
For Amy Ayre and her husband, Dan, the decision to wait an extra year before sending their son, Micah, to kindergarten was “gut-wrenching.” Their oldest child, a girl, had started kindergarten on time and was doing fine. Furthermore, Micah’s best friend—the son of their close friends—was enrolling in kindergarten on schedule.
“That separation was very difficult for both boys, and for the moms, but we felt it was best for our son,” says Ayre, who lives in Falls Church. “He was not ready academically or emotionally. He wanted to play, not go to school.”
According to Virginia law, children must be 5 years old on or before Sept. 30 to be eligible for kindergarten, but they are not required to attend school until they are 6. A growing number of parents like Ayre are opting to wait that extra year—a practice that is often referred to as “redshirting.”
Redshirting takes its name from the college strategy of benching athletes to lengthen their eligibility and give them more time to grow and improve their skills and endurance.
Indeed, while some kindergarten parents do it to give their kids a leg up in sports, the far more common refrain among advocates has to do with a child’s emotional and social readiness and ability to keep up with a less play-oriented, more academic environment.
Ayre says she was heavily influenced by David Elkind’s book The Hurried Child (originally published in 1981 and updated most recently in 2001). In it, the author, a noted child psychologist and professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, laments what he calls “assembly-line learning” and the “industrialization” of education that emphasizes standardized tests and benchmarks over individuality. Prior to the 1960s, when fewer than 40 percent of children were in early-childhood programs or half-day kindergarten, “teachers had to deal with children who might be academically advanced but socially immature, and vice versa,” Elkind writes. Today, the pressure to perform—and conform—is much greater; the flexible classroom environment is no longer guaranteed.
Growing up in India reinforced Neena Gupta’s decision to redshirt her son, Evan, who started kindergarten at Oakridge Elementary last fall as an almost 6-year-old. Back home, “the idea of redshirting a year would be considered falling behind,” says Gupta, who now lives in Aurora Highlands. “Thus, I and my siblings had a much earlier start to school. My mom, to this day, takes pride in how young we were when we went to school and graduated. We all did fine academically, but socially we were challenged. My very intelligent younger siblings still have a hard time making friends and put an extreme focus on excelling above everything else.”
It took Gupta and her husband, Ben, almost a year to come to a decision about Evan. “We knew academically Evan would do fine if we’d sent him on time,” she says, “but his emotional self would have been challenged greatly.” Although it was hard for Evan to see his friends advance while he stayed an extra year in preschool, Gupta and her husband believe they made the right choice.
But not all parents view redshirting as a positive. Many feel it tips the playing field unfairly against the younger kids who enroll on schedule.
“It continues to irk me a bit when people hold back their kids who are perfectly bright and able,” says an Arlington mom who asked to remain anonymous. “It just magnifies the age differences among the kids in a class, and for no good reason.”
Others see it as a competitive crutch. “There is obviously a great benefit [for redshirting families], but it’s selfishly done,” says a Falls Church dad who also declined to use his name. “I am a little fed up with the practice here in Northern Virginia, with every parent seeming to look for any advantage to have their children outperform their neighbors.”
In the spring of 2011, this debate hit close to home for my family. Our son was turning 5 in August and was eligible to start kindergarten that fall. Academically, we felt confident that he was ready. Physically, he was tall for his age and had good motor skills. But socially, we had serious doubts. He suffered from severe social anxiety. While his peers played in groups, he stood alone on the sidelines.
Seeing this tendency in him brought back painful memories for me. I had been the youngest in my class, born a month before my state’s Dec. 31 cutoff date. Although I always had friends and kept up my grades, I was often shy and insecure. By the time I got to college, I was unfocused, bounced around between majors, and ended up taking an extra year to graduate.
Would I have benefited from an extra year before kindergarten, I wondered? Would my son benefit?
In his popular 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell studied how the most successful people got that way—not just through talent and ambition, but also through intense practice, a series of fortunate circumstances, and something else over which they had no control: when they were born. He discovered that the most successful athletes in certain sports tended to have birthdays immediately following eligibility cutoff dates, making them the oldest among their peers. Older kids naturally performed better, which attracted more attention and better coaching. This momentum compounded from one year to the next until those athletes were superstars.
Gladwell’s findings were similar in the classroom. He cited research indicating that, among a group of fourth-graders, the oldest children scored between 4 and 12 percentage points higher than their younger peers on standardized math tests. At the college level, he noted, classes had disproportionate numbers of older kids; those on the younger end of the spectrum tended to be underrepresented in any given class by nearly 12 percent.
In recent years, several states have sought to correct this imbalance by pushing back their kindergarten cutoff dates to compete with states that have earlier cutoffs. “Our kids are younger when they’re taking the SAT,” one North Carolina legislator complained in a 2007 article by Elizabeth Weil in The New York Times, “and they’re applying to the same colleges as the kids from Florida and Georgia [who skew older].”
Nationwide, the percentage of children entering kindergarten as 6-year-olds remained fairly steady—somewhere between 6 and 9 percent of all kindergartners—between the 1980s and the 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Although estimates vary widely, studies by NCES and others now suggest that the number may be as high as 20 percent. Some of the increase may be attributable to states revising their cutoff dates, but not all of it. Most of the redshirted children are boys, by a 2-to-1 margin.
And, more often than not, they are Caucasian. In 2011, researchers Daphna Bassok and Sean F. Reardon from the University of Virginia and Stanford University issued a paper that further analyzed redshirting by race. Their study found that nearly 6 percent of white children were redshirters, while among black, Hispanic and Asian children, only between 1 and 3 percent were held back.
In more-affluent communities, the percentage of redshirted children can be three or four times the national average. Arlington County school officials say they don’t track the number of kids who delay kindergarten enrollment (although they must certainly have the raw data on students’ birth dates). But it stands to reason that the trend would hold true in a wealthy and highly educated community like this one.
“The relative value of being older for one’s grade,” Weil wrote in the Times, “is a particularly open secret in those sectors of the American schooling system that treat education like a competitive sport.” In Arlington, where parents must win lotteries to get their kids into choice elementary schools, this playing field sounds familiar.
Yet some critics posit that redshirting may yield little benefit over the long term, and that it may even be harmful to the kids who are held back, as well as their younger peers. The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE) still stands by a position paper it published in 2000 that asserted that: “Delaying children’s entry into school and/or segregating them into extra-year classes actually labels children as failures at the outset of their school experience….Not only is there a preponderance of evidence that there is no academic benefit from retention in its many forms, but there also appear to be threats to the social-emotional development of the child subjected to such practices.”
In their research, Bassok and Reardon observe that, if redshirting kids tend to be white boys from more-affluent and educated backgrounds, and if that trend persists, “poor, black, and Hispanic children may be negatively affected.” Many parents simply don’t have the option to hold their kids back if they work full time and can’t afford an extra year of child care.
Others have taken the opposite view, arguing that younger students stand to benefit from being in a classroom of older kids. ’“Redshirting children begin school with others who are a little further behind them. Because learning is social, the real winners in that situation are their classmates,” neuroscientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College, wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed.
The authors note in their book that, “Parents concerned about academic achievement might do well to focus on building their children’s self-control ability and social skills”—exactly what many redshirters say they are doing.
This fall, Arlington Public Schools (APS) will welcome 2,100 kindergartners through its doors and will assign 94 kindergarten teachers to guide them. Those kids, and those classrooms, will represent remarkable diversity in terms of gender, primary language, country of origin and, increasingly, age.
Donna Snyder, APS director of early childhood and elementary education, says the school system is well-equipped to handle the variation. She seeks to calm the fears of parents who believe redshirting is required for their kids to keep up.
“We work to help parents understand that the schools are expecting a great deal of diversity,” she says. “We align all of our practices with the philosophy of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which emphasizes ‘readiness’ as the ability of the school to meet the needs of the child.” (Not just the other way around.)
Snyder adds that redshirting, or “retention” as she prefers to call it, is still the exception, not the rule.
Melissa Koenig, a Madison Manor resident, sent her September-born son to kindergarten on time to McKinley Elementary. Now a first-grader, he is meeting expectations in reading and math and is well-behaved in the classroom, even compared with his older classmates, his mom reports. “It may seem like everyone is redshirting,” she says, “but I was pleasantly surprised that many of his classmates had similar birthdays.”
Anne Lewis, who lives in Tara-Leeway Heights, sent her son, Jack, a mid-September baby and the second child of three, to kindergarten at Arlington Traditional School just a couple weeks shy of his fifth birthday. He is now a happy and thriving fifth-grader. Lewis says she’d do it all over again.
“The biggest factor, and the one that made this a painless decision,” she says, “was Jack’s preschool teacher, who said, ‘You are sending him to kindergarten next year, aren’t you?’ I’ve since suggested to several parents on the fence to ask their child’s preschool teacher for an unvarnished opinion.”
Waverly Hills resident Elaine Maag, who sent her now-second-grade son to Glebe Elementary on time, advises parents to ask whether they can observe a kindergarten class at their elementary school and imagine if their child could fit into that environment. “Some children need to be redshirted,” she says. “But if we parents start redshirting all or most children, then the children who really need to be redshirted remain at a disadvantage.”
Of course determining whether your child should wait that extra year is a highly personal and subjective decision—one that is inevitably shaped by parents’ own childhood experiences, ambitions, peer pressure and hope.
When Aurora Highlands resident Dana Dougherty was contemplating sending the youngest of her three boys to school, she was mindful of the timing. The older boys, Garrett and Gavin, had both entered kindergarten at Oakridge at age 5 and responded well to the challenge. But July-born Griffin, she realized, was different. “My rule of thumb, and my mom’s, who was a preschool teacher for 30 years, is send spring, hold summer, especially when it comes to boys,” she says, “because they mature later.”
Now in the pre-K class at Calvary Children’s School, Griffin is showing leadership qualities and a zest for learning that Dougherty says she hadn’t seen before.
If there is societal pressure to hold kids back, there is also pressure not to, Dougherty adds. “There are so many parents who feel that they can’t possibly hold their child back, thinking, ‘People will say I am babying her,’ ‘people will say he is dumb,’ ‘people will question my judgment.’ Unfortunately, that is our society….But if you don’t hold them back when you want to, their lack of confidence will hold them back when you don’t want it to.”
Faced with our own decision over whether to redshirt our son, my husband and I sat down for a meeting with the director of our son’s preschool. Her opinion was unequivocal. In simple, elegant language, she said, “Why don’t you give him the gift of time?”
I was unaware, at that moment, that those exact words had become something of a catchphrase among redshirting proponents. To me, it sounded simply like a solution.
We ultimately agreed. We kept him in pre-K one more year, where he came out of his shell and kicked that shell to the curb. Last fall, he started kindergarten at Oakridge, where he is the oldest child in his class. He is happy, well-adjusted and learning—and friends with even the youngest of his classmates. So far, I have no regrets.
I am aware that some might assume that we held our son back to give him an advantage over other kids, both in school and in sports. That had nothing to do with it. I wanted him only to have an advantage over what you could call his “shadow self”—the child he would have been had he started kindergarten a year earlier. I’ll never know, but my gut tells me he wouldn’t have handled the transition to elementary school nearly as well, and that potentially could have posed more challenges for his teacher, his classmates and, obviously, for him.
Amy Ayre feels she made the right choice for Micah, who is now in eighth grade at George Mason High School in Falls Church City (the school serves grades 8-12). In fourth grade, he was diagnosed with ADHD, and she believes that the extra year of maturity has helped him cope with his condition. Plus, this year Micah was happily reunited with his old best friend from his preschool years. That friend is repeating eighth grade as a result of a decision made by his parents.
“Which is easier?” Ayre asks. “Putting a child in kindergarten when he is 6, or having him repeat a grade at a later time?”
In The Hurried Child, author David Elkind writes that, “the important point to remember is that readiness is not in the child’s head. Readiness is always a relation between the child and the class he or she will enter….Knowing the classroom a child is going to enter is just as important as knowing his or her level of social, intellectual, and emotional maturity.”
Also valuable are the opinions of trusted souls who know your child well, such as preschool teachers, coaches and doctors.
“In general, my advice to parents would be to hold back, particularly if your child is having social difficulties or is more immature than other kids,” says Joshua Weiner, a McLean-based child and adolescent psychiatrist. “So you have your kid in your house for one more year. It’s one more year of maturity before facing the pressures of college. It’s one more year to have a positive influence on them.”
In the end, no one knows a child better than his or her parents. As one mom, who sent her son on time to Taylor Elementary (and requested anonymity) told me, “It was a gut decision on the part of my husband and me, and with confirmation from his preschool teacher, that he was ready for kindergarten. We did fret over the decision, because it seemed like everyone else was redshirting. We tried to just put other people out of our minds and focus on our kid.”
Kim O’Connell has written about families and parenting for Babble.com, Yahoo! News and PsychologyToday.com, as well as on her own blog about childhood anxiety and sensitive children, bloomingboy.com.