This is one hot topic. Two years ago I was at a cocktail party and making friendly conversation with a group of women. We exchanged basic information about each other, you know, where we live, how many kids we have, what we do for a living. When I reveal that I am child psychologist to other mothers I often get one of two reactions — heightened interest followed up by stories about their kids and requests for advice, or withdrawal out of fear of judgement. One of my now close friends told me long after we met that when she initially saw my name and profession on our playgroup roster, she thought, “oh great.” This particular evening’s crowd, however, fell into the interested camp. The topic quickly changed to kindergarten entrance, which was charged with palatable anxiety over whether their child should start this coming year or wait a year. Each mother shared their respective observations of their kids, explaining how they came to their decision, when one mother interrupted, turned to me, pointed, and said, “I want to know what you would do. I want to know when you are going to send your son to kindergarten!” The emotion behind her statements threw me off a bit, but since that time I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought, since it is clearly a topic about which many parents are thinking, are feeling strongly, and are looking for direction.
How prevalent is redshirting anyway? A new, and sound, study just revealed that is a lot less common than people perceive. Only about 4-5% of kids start kindergarten a year after their birth date allows. This number is lowest among low income African American children (1%), presumably because of the cost to the family to provide another year of childcare, and highest within communities with a mean household income of $100,000 or greater (7%). Even despite this range, the overall frequency is much lower than previously thought.
So, does delaying kindergarten give kids a head start? It appears that it can, at least for the first few years of elementary school, and this is especially true for kids who are already at risk for school difficulties due to socio-economic factors (unfortunately those are also the kids who are least likely to start later). However, evidence also indicates that age at school entry is a poor predictor of school success, with younger children performing just as well or better than their older peers. And, some studies indicate that children who are redshirted also have higher use of special education services in elementary school and higher rates of behavioral problems in adolescence. This may be because the children who parents initially thought were immature and in need of an additional year, where actually exhibiting early symptoms of a larger problem and could have benefited from early intervention.
Although I am a big fan of examining the data to inform parenting, the results often do not reveal a clear path, and although group level statistics are useful, they do not tell parents what their individual child’s trajectory will be. What is clear, however, is that given redshirting is much less common than originally thought, parents should worry less about how their child’s age will compare to peers (there is no reason to hold them back just so they won’t be much younger than most of their peers) and more about the signals their own children are giving them.
The big areas to consider are: social skills (ability to initiate and maintain play, sharing, understanding of own and others’ emotions), academic skills (knowledge of content areas such as letter/number recognition and phonics), ability to regulate impulses (staying on task, following directions), and fine motor skills (fine motor skills have been linked with academic success above and beyond content knowledge and attentional abilities). Interestingly, teachers rate enthusiasm to learn, ability to follow directions, and attention span as the most important factors for kindergarten success, less so than actual academic knowledge (which parents tend to perceive as most important).
Given the research on the topic, if you have concerns about your child’s behavior and that is why you are considering delaying them, this is important information that may signal your child would benefit from behavioral intervention, if not immediately than it is something to keep in mind as they progress through their early years of schooling.
So what is the answer to the question originally asked of me at that cocktail party? What will I do for Leo? Well, he will be 5 1/2 at the time of kindergarten. That February birthday excuses me from much of this anxiety. But even beyond that, I see him being very enthusiastic about learning and I want to give him as many opportunities as I can to foster that curiosity. I think he is a kid who is in danger of getting bored in a less stimulating/demanding environment. After his first day of preschool he was disappointed because “I didn’t learn anything.” Socially, I do wonder if being older would be helpful for him, especially since in adolescence it is socially advantageous for boys to hit puberty early (it is risk factor for girls) because that means physical strength. But, at this point he keeps up well with friends who are a year or more older, and prefers their company to kids who are a few months younger. In some ways being surrounded by older kids is much easier because they tend to be more prosocial and they model social skills from which Leo can benefit. Taken together, the risk of Leo becoming bored outweighs any concerns I have about him socially. This coming year of preschool instead of being in a traditional 3’s classroom, he will be in a young 4’s room that ranges from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2. I plan to see how that age assortment goes for him as it may mirror what we will encounter in kindergarten.
What are the factors you considered when making this decision for your child?
- Redshirting Myself or My Kid? (whencrazymeetsexhaustion.com)