The practice of parents waiting until their children are six to enroll them in kindergarten has become so widespread that CBS' 60 Minutes has taken note.
Parents who follow this practice told correspondent Morley Safer that it gives their child a competitive advantage over their younger classmates -- both academically and on the sports field.
Safer said studies showed that boys are twice as likely to be held back by their parents as girls, whites more than minorities, and rich more than the poor.
The concept is taken from college sports, where athletes will practice with the team for the first year but sit out competition while they get bigger, stronger, and more competitive. In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, he shows that a disproportionate number of successful young hockey players in Canada were born earlier in the year, and the effect continues all the way up to the National Hockey League.
While this approach may work with athletes, the research on kindergarten redshirting, as the practice is called, is mixed. Safer interviewed the author of a recent Canadian study who found that redshirting can yield positive academic outcomes. But other experts disagreed, insisting that academic gains are not sustained in later grades and that there may be an increase in social and behavioral problems when older and bigger students enter puberty. Samuel Meisels, president of Chicago's Erikson Institute, said that while redshirting may be appropriate for some children, it is "educational quackery."
Age appropriateness is something I've pondered since my mother told me that I had "missed the deadline" for kindergarten by three weeks. I don't know whether I would have done as well in elementary school if I had not missed the cut-off and started kindergarten a year earlier, but I know that I did well enough to qualify later for the "Special Progress" class in junior high school, which enabled students to complete three years of junior high in two. Terrible idea! I have long believed that essentially skipping eighth grade erased whatever edge I had and wreaked havoc on my self-confidence. But that's an indictment of being pushed ahead, not being held back.
My two oldest sons have August and October birthdays, while the third was born in March. Did my third child appear to have an advantage when he entered kindergarten? Absolutely! But I don't know if that was due to his early birthday or being raised in a family with older siblings. Redshirting was not an option back then, but my father, who was an elementary school principal, was of the opinion that early advantages generally equalized by third grade. I have found this to be true.
Redshirting clearly needs more study, but what disturbs me is the motivation behind it. Parents say they are leveling the playing field for their children, but what they are doing is creating an unfair playing field for the other kids who are age appropriate for their grade. And before their children even start school, they are setting up a competition with other students. Kids should be competing with themselves, encouraged to be the best they can be, not constantly looking over their shoulder at others. Schools should also be equipped to differentiate instruction, being able to meet the needs of varying individuals with different learning styles.
Actually, the average age of kindergarten entrants continues to rise, with 37 states now requiring that children be five when they enter kindergarten. The fact that school districts around the country differ widely in their cut-off dates for students entering kindergarten is a source of confusion for parents. Deadlines range from June 1 to December 31, so make sure you know what the date is in your community.
The decision of whether or not to hold a child back from kindergarten should be based on the individual youngster's social, emotional, and academic needs and development, not on a parent-instigated race with other kids. Parents know their children best, and should also take into account what the child will be doing if he/she is not in kindergarten. Here, parents with resources have a clear advantage in providing alternative educational experiences.
Sending your child to kindergarten is an important milestone for you and your child. Here are some ways you can help prepare your child for kindergarten:
• While teachers are happy when children enter kindergarten knowing letters and numbers, they do not want you to drill your child. Kindergarten teachers look for their students to have readiness skills; these are the building blocks that will enable your child to love learning and to succeed in school. You can prepare your child with readiness skills through his/her daily activities.
• Does your child approach learning enthusiastically and is he curious? Is she eager to explore, discover, and ask questions? Point out your child's surroundings, including flowers, trees, birds, people, etc., and take time to encourage and answer her questions.
• Hand-in-hand with curiosity and discovery go language skills. Help your child build his vocabulary by giving him words and descriptions as he observes and experiences his surroundings. Additionally, activities, such as visits to the beach, park, beach, children's museum, or zoo, present many opportunities for you to help him develop language skills.
• Kindergarten teachers will be pleased if your child has the ability to listen. Read to your child every day, and engage her by asking questions about the book. Besides nurturing vocabulary and comprehension, reading develops the listening skills necessary in a kindergarten classroom.
• Encouraging your child to take care of himself will prepare him for kindergarten. For example, although it's easier to hang up your son's coat yourself, his kindergarten teacher will want your child to do it. She cannot take off the boots and hang up the coats of 25 students. Help your child to become ready for school by teaching him to do such tasks as going to the bathroom himself and washing his hands, and opening up a juice box and putting the straw in. Perhaps if he attends pre-school, he has already mastered these skills.
• Kindergarten is about socialization, so help your child get ready by encouraging him to share, take turns, and understand the rights, space, and feelings of others.
• It's important for kindergarten students to have good eye-hand coordination. Many kindergarten activities involve coloring, cutting, pasting, and writing with a pencil. Playing with clay or Play-Doh, writing, coloring, painting, pasting, and stringing beads are examples of activities that will get your child ready for kindergarten.
• Kindergarten teachers will teach their students how to write and recognize letter sounds. But they are happy when their students come to school knowing how to count to 10, and know shapes and colors. If your child attends pre-school, this is usually well covered there.
For a link to the CBS' 60 Minutes: "Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten," go here.
Follow Meryl Ain, Ed.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrMerylAin