Around the time I registered my twin girls for kindergarten, I heard about the nationwide trend of parents holding back their children from starting kindergarten to give them the advantage of increased age and maturity. Since my twins’ birthday is late July, I became especially interested in this issue. The idea of “redshirting” originated in sports, giving an additional year for athletes to become bigger and stronger, and the term is now applied to academics, where the trend is rapidly growing. An article in The New Yorker reported that in 1968, 4% of kindergarten students in America were 6 years old; by 1995, the number had grown to 9%; and in 2008, it had risen to 17%.
On the surface, redshirting makes sense, following the assumption that a 6-year-old brain is more capable than a 5-year-old brain of handling a classroom setting. Often this assumption is true, and some kids need that extra year of development. It’s when the decision is made for competitive reasons — trying to give a child an edge over other students, regardless of readiness or maturity — that it causes concern for education leaders.
Some experts consider redshirting to be “gaming the system,” since delaying entry is not an option for families who can’t afford to pay for another year of daycare or preschool when the child can legitimately attend a free public kindergarten. No doubt, the trend to hold kids back is primarily exercised by affluent parents.
REASONS FOR REDSHIRTING
The reasons parents state for redshirting vary from unpredictable (holding back a boy in hopes he’ll be taller than the girls; advancing a girl so she isn’t more physically developed than her classmates; or concern a boy won’t be able to go on dates if he can’t drive as early as his classmates) to extremely valid (a child being emotionally, academically or socially immature).
Donna Miller, of GEMS (SC) Mothers of Older Twins, has been an elementary school teacher for more than 30 years. She is now retired and often substitutes in kindergarten classes.
“The oldest kids in the class are more social, better able to separate from Mom, more focused, and more interested in learning,” said Donna, who sees “a vast difference” among the oldest and youngest children in the class. “I didn’t see as much of a split among 5th graders, but it makes a huge difference in kindergarten.”
In addition to age, gender often plays a role in maturity rates. “It could be wise to give boys especially another year to get ready. Boys tend to take a little longer to get into the idea of school and sitting in a classroom,” Donna said. Obviously, this complicates the decision for parents of boy-girl multiples.
THE COMPLICATING FACTOR OF MULTIPLES
Deven Kane of Northwest Suburban (MI) Mothers of Multiples has triplets (two girls and a boy) who will turn 5 in mid-August and immediately start kindergarten. “The people in their preschool all communicate that they are ready to move forward with reading, mathematics, physical and social skills. Our children have participated in sports; and none of them stood out as being less physically ready than the rest of the team. Mostly, we are trusting the opinion of the professionals.”
Making the decision for two — or in Deven’s case, three — children at once isn’t easy. “The biggest concern is if one falls behind, can we really make a decision to hold the one back while allowing the others to move forward?”
Since they were toddlers, Deven realized they would be younger than their classmates, so she took steps to boost their readiness. “Team sports help kids develop maturity, learn cooperation, follow directions and learn to take turns, all of which is essential in kindergarten.” Deven believes that enrolling young kids in team and individual sports can have a much bigger impact in the long run than holding them back a year in school.
“As an educator, I had a difficult time making this decision,” Deven continued. “I have seen students who started school young and never filled in those gaps in learning. I don’t want to see my own children struggle. At the same time, parents know their children best, and we know our children’s capabilities.”
Beth McGuire of Multiples of the Midlands (SC) has twin boys in kindergarten. “They turned 6 in late September, so we missed the cut off. And I was relieved! In preschool they were some of the smaller boys in their class, and both were sensitive about it. While there are taller boys this year in kindergarten, they like that they are no longer the smallest. Parents need to look at their individual child’s needs and maturity. Kids are much more resilient than we often give them credit for being. Children are little sponges. I worried incessantly about going from the small, nurturing Montessori environment to a large, public school setting. Now I laugh when I think about those worries because my boys are doing great.”
A YEAR OF TRANSITION
A great option for children with summer and fall birthdays are “transitional kindergarten” programs offered in some states. These programs — often called Young Fives — feature a modified curriculum tailored to children who may not be ready for the challenges of regular kindergarten, or who seem ready but don’t meet the state’s age requirement. California and Michigan are two states offering this option, and it is free in some areas and tuition-based in others.
Kim Dahring of Northwest Suburban (MI) Mothers of Multiples has 5-year-old fraternal twin girls. They have a late-August birthday, and Kim enrolled them in Young Fives. “I didn’t see any disadvantage other than cost. The pros outweighed the cost exponentially. My twins will have an additional year to build skills and perhaps avoid unnecessary struggles. We believe they also may have more confidence and maturity. One year can bring a lot of growth mentally and physically. We have older daughters who were young in their classes, and we firmly feel they would have benefited from an additional year before going to college.”
Depending on a state’s specific laws, at the end of the transition year, children may be recommended for traditional kindergarten or 1st grade, depending on their readiness. And public schools in some states offer summer programs to help kids prepare before kindergarten begins.
My twin daughters are thriving in a small, private kindergarten that meets four days a week, for less than five hours a day. Our twins will begin 1st grade in public school in the fall, only two weeks after they turn 6, and others frequently question me about our decision. While I have normal concerns that most mothers feel as their children start “big kid” school, I believe they are ready for the challenge of 1st grade, despite being younger than most of their classmates.
NEW RESEARCH FINDINGS
Children who were redshirted years ago are now old enough for researchers to measure the impact of their delayed start. One study found that “while earlier studies have argued that redshirted children do better both socially and academically … more recent analyses suggest the opposite: the youngest kids, who barely make the age cutoff but are enrolled anyway, ultimately end up on top.”
At least three other studies have similar findings, including a 2008 study at Harvard University, whose researchers believe “the younger students experienced positive effects from being in a relatively more mature environment: in striving to catch up with their peers, they ended up surpassing them.” For years, Montessori and other independent schools have structured their classrooms around this premise: younger students benefit from having older peers.
It’s hard to deny that being bigger, quicker and more mature is a good thing. And many studies have supported that hypothesis, showing higher scores, better teacher evaluations and improved social skills for older students during the elementary years. But those early advantages may disappear by high school and college, where multiple studies show younger students outperform their older classmates and have higher graduation rates. These researchers agree with those in the Harvard study: if you are always bigger and smarter, you may be more likely to get bored and think that learning should come easily. If you’re relatively younger, you are constantly forced to reach for your limits. This research indicates that teaching our children to deal with and overcome obstacles can have a long-lasting effect that could serve them well throughout their lifetimes.
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa Metze is married to a twin son of Christina Metze of Multiples of the Midlands (SC). She points out there are dangers to making blanket statements that apply to all children, as researchers often do. “The decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. Parents must closely observe their children’s behaviors and judge their readiness as best they can. All children are different. They walk, talk, learn and do everything else differently,” said Alyssa.
Connie Christie of the Capitol Area (MI) Mothers of Multiples is mother to 25-year-old twin girls and younger singleton. Connie’s twins have an early October birthday and were older than many of their classmates. She believes being older than their classmates helped them settle into a leadership style of behavior. However, she warns if children are way ahead of their peers, they can become bored in school, which isn’t good.
Alyssa agrees it can be a delicate balance. “On one hand, you want your children to be ready for school so that they can learn the most they possibly can,” she said. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to wait too long to put them in school.”
Those of us in Generation X are often accused of sheltering our children. We need to question our motives if paving an easier path is our sole reason for redshirting. The issue of kindergarten readiness is not simple, and making the decision for multiple children adds incredible complexity. Like all issues related to parenting multiples, there is no right or wrong answer — we each need to make the best decision we can for our families, and not look back.
Connie jokes about a height spike her twins had in 5th grade that made them basketball stars, but the stardom ended quickly when their teammates grew really soon after. Connie’s advice? “Make the decision based on your children’s ability to handle school and social situations, not for your own desire for a star athlete or student. We all have our places in life; let your children have their place as well.”
REGULATIONS DIFFER BY STATE AND SCHOOL
In many states, attendance in kindergarten is optional, with compulsory attendance beginning in 1st grade. If you’re considering redshirting your child/children, be sure to check for restrictions in your state and school district. Some public elementary schools, or their principals, have strict guidelines dictating a child’s admission. For example, one South Carolina mother told me that her child was tested for kindergarten readiness and, since the child passed, the principal would not allow delayed entry for her child. Some schools simply require a meeting with the principal for parents to explain their reasoning for wanting to delay their child’s entry. Other schools allow complete parental discretion, but parents need to contact their school before they make a decision, in case any paperwork or specific requirements need to be met.
ADVICE FROM A KINDEGARTEN TEACHER
Kindergarten teacher Alyssa Metze offers advice to parents trying to make the decision about redshirting. “Pay close attention to your children’s behavior and maturity level. If they seem as though they can handle working with other children, sitting in one place for at least 25 minutes, following directions, and are ready to learn more than just the basic alphabet and numbers, then you definitely need to put your child in school no matter their age,” said Alyssa.
Alyssa explains that a child who may seem a little behind can actually benefit by starting school on time and accessing the free resources available through public schools. “If you’ve been working with your children on learning the basics, like the alphabet and numbers, and they seem to be having difficulties, consider putting them in school by the age of 5 so they can get help and interventions earlier rather than later. Difficulties and developmental delays are best caught early.”
“No matter when you decide to enroll your children in kindergarten, please prepare them for school,” Alyssa advised. “Teach them the alphabet, colors, numbers, and to count. Hold conversations with them. The more you talk together the better vocabulary your child will have. Read to them at least once a day, but more would be great. Like little sponges, children learn the most within their first 3–4 years of life, before they even enter school.”
by Sara Barr
(originally published 2014)