Knowing when to hold 'em, when to send 'em
by Heather Cunningham
Illustration by Jana Christy
Irene Combs wanted to enroll her son in kindergarten when he was just 4 years old. "He had missed the cutoff by just 26 days, and I thought he was ready," she says. But her eagerness to send her son into the public school system was stymied by school administrators who convinced Combs she would be doing him a disservice. Many children with summer birthdays, particularly boys, enter kindergarten a year later, the superintendent told Combs. As a result, he said, her child would be particularly young for his peer group.
"That was the first time that I had ever heard of parents whose kids have summer birthdays delaying kindergarten," the LaGrange resident says. It wouldn't be the last. The next year at a school function Combs met another mother who said she was thinking of keeping her son out of kindergarten for an additional year because he had a May birthday. "First summer babies, now those born in May?" says Combs. "One thought that keeps coming to mind is what will these May babies think when they are 18 years old and still have to finish their junior year in high school?"
While that's hard to tell, we do know they will have company. The term "redshirting," once used only to refer to college athletes who sit out a season to improve their skills, has gained a new definition in recent years. Academic redshirting now refers to holding back kindergarten-eligible children to give them another year for intellectual, emotional or even physical growth. It occurs most often when a child's birthday falls close to the Sept. 1 cut-off date used by all Illinois public schools.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly 1 in 10 kindergartners were redshirted according to data collected in 2000. The number may be even higher in some public school districts. Boys-particularly white, non-Hispanic boys-are the most likely to be held back a year, the statistics show.
"The sense everyone is getting is that this is a phenomenon that has been going on for decades and that has grown more popular over time," says Samuel Meisels, president of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Develop-ment. "Anecdotally, in places like San Francisco, you hear that it is impossible to enroll a boy in private kindergarten unless they are at least 6 years of age. The entire age span for boys enrolled in these selective schools has gone up by a year."
Why it's happening
Redshirting is a trend being fed by both educators and parents. "There is a growing tendency to want to hold a child back to make sure that they are among the oldest in their class, and more mature, and have the potential to outperform their peers," says Terry Hatch, associate pediatrics professor at the University of Illinois.
And it's not just about academic performance, either.
"I even had a parent approach me about wanting to hold their child back from kindergarten, even though he had been doing fine in preschool, because they wanted him to be larger, physically bigger, when he was eligible (to play sports)," says Meisels.
Some parents just don't want their child to be physically dwarfed by their classmates. "Parents will hold their child out for that reason, particularly if he is a boy, because they don't want him to be the smallest in the class," says Darien-based pediatrician Garry Gardener. "If he is in the 5th percentile for size and also emotionally immature, I might agree."
"Other times it is parents of boys-because 70 to 80 percent of the students in question are boys-who look at the classroom and think that it is too academically oriented for their boy, that he will have difficulty with attention and sitting still in his seat," says Meisels. "They usually don't have a problem with how smart they are, but they are afraid that their son just isn't emotionally mature enough. This is a sad state of affairs when you think that we are talking about kindergarten, which really means 'the garden of children.' "
But research shows that teachers also may be unwittingly feeding some of that parental anxiety. Studies indicate the steady rise in redshirting may be linked to an increasing demand for higher levels of academic as well as social readiness in students entering kindergarten. That research shows more kindergarten teachers are expecting children to come to class equipped with good language, attention, problem-solving and small-muscle coordination skills. This goes against what's expected by parents, who seem to focus on preparing their child for kindergarten by honing their social, pre-reading and math skills.
In one national survey, teachers indicated 48 percent of their students were not ready for the current kindergarten curriculum, lacked the skills needed to follow directions and could not work independently. In those circumstances, parents say they make the only decision they believe will work for their child. "Kindergarten last year would have eaten him alive," says one west suburban mom who held back her summer-birthday son.
That shouldn't be, says Elizabeth Graue, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin and author of a 2002 study exploring the impact of redshirting. "There is a problem with a system that can't adapt to natural variations in kids' development," she says. "Teachers need to focus on meeting the needs of every child that has a right to be there."
Still, research shows that students who are redshirted are less likely to receive negative feedback from teachers about their academic performance or conduct in class through second grade. Robert Byrd, associate pediatrics professor at the University of California and author of a 1997 study examining the long-term effects of redshirting, says he understands those results. "It may be easier to manage a classroom of 6-year-old boys than a classroom of 5-year-old boys, but that does not mean we should be holding all of those boys back a year."
Colleen Puttin, a kindergarten teacher in Batavia and mother of a 2-year-old son with an August birthday, says she wouldn't advise any parent to hold back a young-for-grade student who is academically ready to begin kindergarten. But, she adds, "from what I have seen traditionally, boys with a later summer birthday are not as emotionally ready to begin kindergarten as girls (of the same age) are."
Graue says the odds are Puttin's son one day will be redshirted. "In my research I have found that a disproportionate number of redshirted students have parents who are teachers, because many teachers have the perceived idea that being the oldest is a benefit."
Swimming against that tide, Graue, a former kindergarten teacher, chose not to redshirt her August-born son when he became eligible for kindergarten. "He was a bit more immature than his classmates, but he has always had teachers who have handled that well," says Graue. "I have always requested that he get placed with a teacher who isn't afraid of the idea of young boys."
But the real story about children who are young-for-grade, researchers say, is something all teachers understand. "Someone has to be the youngest in the class," says Meisels. "And being the youngest does not necessarily mean that he or she is at a disadvantage. Age itself is not a direct marker of educational maturity-that has more to do with genetics, experience and learning style."
Puttin agrees. "You really have to look at the individual child. Right now I don't know that I will hold Brett back when the time comes. I will just have to assess it when we get to that point."
The emotional impact
A Chicago area mother believes holding back her August-born son was the best thing she could have done. Now in first grade, he is one of the academic and social leaders of his class. Another parent regrets not holding back her son years ago. Her son, now a teenager, still seems more socially immature than his peers, she says. Except for the few like Combs who publicly question the practice, parents generally seem to believe no harm can be done by holding back a child who would be young for his grade-and a lot can be lost if they are pushed into school before they're ready.
National experts say that commonly-held belief is wrong.
Byrd's research shows that when these kids become teenagers, they are far more likely to have behavior problems and drop out of school. In fact, students who were redshirted and consequently ended up old for their grade were twice as likely as their peers to drop out of high school, according to a study Byrd presented last year at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting.
"Age alone is not a good reason to hold a child back," says Byrd. "The idea should not be to ace school, but to be engaged by it."
The problem, he says, is children who are held back and end up being the oldest in their class sometimes fail to gain self-esteem from their accomplishments. "They may be bored and even if they do well they feel that somehow they should be doing a little better because of the fact they are older," Byrd says.
Byrd points to research showing that any small advantage redshirted kindergartners may have washes out by third grade. What remains, he says, are years of an educational race that may have been launched from a skewed starting gate. "The peer-pressure issues that children face when they are 6 aren't the same as those they will face when they are 15 and 16 and the rest of the class is 13 or 14 and at an age when no one wants to be different."
Some would argue that kindergartners don't like feeling different, either. Experts note that children are keenly aware of their classmates' ages. In particular, they know who is the oldest and who is the youngest. That, the experts say, can be especially difficult for the older children. "When I taught kindergarten, I had a child with a May birthday who had been held back and started a year later," says Graue. "He didn't want to celebrate his birthday in class, no cupcakes, nothing. I found out later that he didn't want his classmates to know that he would be turning 7 instead of 6. There is more going on in those heads than we think."
Nor do students benefit socially, according to Graue's research. "I spoke with children, and I remember asking one boy who had been redshirted what he would need to do to be successful in kindergarten," says Graue. "He said that you needed to be able to sit, be quiet and be a good boy, or else they wouldn't want you. Kids that are age-misplaced in school wonder why, even if they may not voice it. It may be convenient for adults to assume that it is not an issue for their child, but kids are a lot more socially savvy than that."
According to Meisels, the trauma that a child may feel at being left behind by his peers is an important reason to weigh costs and benefits. "There can be very significant problems if a child is taken out of his or her peer group to be held back," he says. "For some children it may look like they are being held back in preschool, and we know that to lose a peer group is one of the most catastrophic things that can happen in the life of young children. We also know that those relationships are already beginning to be cemented by kindergarten."
An academic advantage?
Parents often see holding their child back as giving them an academic advantage. It is the same goal parents had a few years ago when they sent their children to kindergarten a year early. They believed that sending a child to kindergarten a year early would give him a jump on classmates.
Sending kids early isn't a good idea, experts say, and research shows red- shirting a child won't give them a long-term advantage either. Although the older kindergartners may get a short-term boost, particularly in reading, research shows, the advantage disappears after age 8. "In first and second grade the redshirted students may be more competent, but if you follow kids into third grade you see that there are virtually no differences from student to student," says Meisels.
A lot also depends on what the student has been doing in the year he or she is kept out of kindergarten. "If he has spent the whole year in this fabulous pre-kindergarten, he may then be bored by kindergarten later on," says Meisels. This was a child ready for kindergarten. "And this also ends up being a financial issue, because not all parents can afford to pay for this sort of high-quality education in the year that their child is waiting for kindergarten."
Conversely, children who were kept at home, required to repeat a preschool class or remain in childcare are less likely to get the same benefit from waiting a year to start school, Byrd says. "At the end of that year they will just be bigger, older, more bored and more capable of getting into trouble, which is a bad combination and actually renders them at an academic disadvantage."
At the same time, research shows a disproportionate number of redshirted kindergartners need special education services such as therapy for speech and learning disabilities once they do enter school. By delaying their entry into public school, parents also delay the moment when their children can begin receiving intervention services, which can put these students behind from the start.
Making the call
So what is a parent to do? Parents of kindergarten-eligible children with a late spring or summer birthday will have to answer that question in the next few weeks. "My best advice is to look at it individually and not generalize," says Meisels. "I would encourage parents to enroll their child for the year in which he is age-appropriate rather than waiting. My preference is always to try."
He admits there are exceptions. "Even though my opinion is that (red- shirting) is a bad policy for parents and schools to follow on a large-scale basis, on an individual basis it may make sense for some children," he says. "Clearly a child who is having difficulties with learning or social difficulties, or who has not had a lot of preschool experience may need to be held back. The same with those who have some very, very close ties to a teacher or other children that will be in school the following year."
Pediatricians recommend any child who seems hyperactive, aggressive, excessively shy or clingy, or who appears to have a speech, language or other developmental delay, be evaluated by a physician well before kindergarten registration to determine if there are any problems that need addressing. Many school districts will conduct free developmental screenings as young as age two. Parents may want to check with the district. Says Hatch, "The key is to start some sort of intervention early so that they do not have to be held back."
Other experts suggest that you make sure that your child gets some sort of preschool experience before kindergarten, and then rely on the recommendations of those teachers-who are experienced in evaluating school readiness-for their advice. "They know how your child fits into the overall peer group and they will have a good idea if they are ready or not," says Gardener.Heather Cunningham is a freelance writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues. She also has a 17-month-old son with an August birthday, who may someday be one of the youngest in his class .