Our local school districts are ramping up for kindergarten registration, and many parents will be deciding whether or not their child is ready for kindergarten. Some will choose to keep their child in preschool for another year, even though they are technically old enough to start kindergarten. It’s a dilemma many parents of young children face, particularly parents of children who are on the edges of school age cut-offs.
Delaying a child’s entrance into kindergarten—often called “redshirting” after the collegiate practice of having athletes who are postponing play wear red shirts on the sidelines—has become more common, and is currently estimated at about 5 percent of students, according to a 2010 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The uptick in redshirting likely corresponds to an increase in the rigor and structure of kindergarten curriculum, writes Laura Pappano in the Harvard Education Letter, Sept-Oct 2010.
Parents may hope that holding their children back a year gives them a competitive athletic advantage. Malcolm Gladwell discussed such outcomes in his popular book Outliers: The Story of Success. He reports that Canadian boys born in early January (right after the January 1 cut-off) had a much greater likelihood of becoming hockey stars.
But does this logic hold in academic settings? The short answer is: not really. Although some early studies hinted at a competitive advantage to being the oldest in a class, more recent investigations have revealed that redshirting can actually do harm in the long run. In fact, the National Association for the Education of Young Children strongly recommends against redshirting.
What Does the Research Tell Us?
Studies such as that by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000 have found that older and bigger kindergarten students perform better—they are less likely to receive negative feedback from teachers, and fewer reported problems concentrating—but only initially. Such early advantages take a sharp turn downward and are essentially gone by 8th grade; by college, relatively older students consistently lag behind, according to research by M. Pellizzari and F. Billari reported in the Journal of Population Economics in 2012.
A 2006 study by J. Lincove and G. Painter (reported in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis) found that redshirted children performed worse on standardized tests in 10th grade, were twice as likely to drop out of school and were less likely to graduate from college. The only positive outcome for redshirted children was that they were more likely to play varsity sports (again, that physical advantage).
These results were further supported by a 2008 Harvard investigation—conducted by economists D. Deming and S. Dynarski in 2007 and reported in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association—which found that delayed academic entry resulted in lower rates of high school and college completion and lower lifetime earnings. It is important to note that these results are based on correlations (which don’t prove causation), and it’s possible that redshirted children were more likely to have delayed school entry due to learning or developmental concerns that then contributed to their increased negative outcomes.
Perhaps even more convincing is a well-designed 2007 investigation by E. Cascio and D. Whitmore, reported in The National Bureau of Economic Research. In the study, students were randomly assigned to kindergarten classrooms. Investigators then examined how a child’s relative age in the class influenced long-term outcomes; they found that children who were older than their classmates scored significantly lower on achievement tests (both in kindergarten and in middle school), were more likely to repeat a year and were less likely to take college-entrance exams.
So, why might a child who is relatively younger be at an advantage? The predominant hypothesis is that children who are surrounded by older peers get a developmental boost from the increased stimulation and challenge. Essentially, they strive to keep up with their older peers, and this increases their rate of learning and development, with lasting effects. This hypothesis is supported by research that finds that grades with mixed age levels have a positive effect for the younger students when the majority of the students are older. (This research was conducted in 1997 by F. Morrison, D. Alberts, and E. Griffith and reported in Developmental Psychology.) Younger children are able to level the playing field through consistent efforts in an intellectually and academically challenging environment.
How to Decide
The question parents should ask themselves is: “Do I want my child to have a short-term advantage or a long-term one?” While a younger 5-year-old in kindergarten may have to work a bit harder to keep up with older peers, that challenge creates an environment in which a child is pushing his or her limits and learning that through hard work and persistence, they can reach the level of their peers.
The decision to redshirt your child is an individual one based upon many factors, such as finances, a child’s emotional development and fit with a kindergarten setting. While there are no certainties when it comes to how your individual child might be affected, based on current data, it would likely be wise to think twice about holding him or her back a year. If you have serious concerns about your child’s development and/or readiness for kindergarten, it is always best to consult with a professional to discuss your concerns and to carefully weigh the benefits and costs of redshirting for your child.
Dr. Lindsay Evans is a postdoctoral psychology resident in Austin. She specializes in therapy and assessment for children, adolescents and adults.