By the end of Bubbe’s second year in preschool, my husband Mac and I knew he wouldn’t be ready to start Kindergarten with the rest of his peers.
A sweet, quiet child with a sensitive disposition, our son struggled with skills that seemed to come naturally to many classmates.
Starting just shy of his 2nd birthday, for a few hours each week he worked with a helper teacher to learn how to play in an age-appropriate way during preschool and at home. He also strengthened his muscle tone, developed fine and gross motor skills and addressed sensitivity issues driven by sensory processing with a physical and occupational therapist as well as practiced communication pragmatics and articulation with a speech specialist.
Bubbe made fine progress over time, but mastery in one area was typically followed by a step back in another.
Even though he was tall for his age, had a birthday not particularly close to the school district’s cutoff and knew his ABCs and 123s as well as he should, there were enough consistent inconsistencies in his development to explore the redshirting option.
Teachers and service providers agreed; giving our son time to “cook” for an additional school year, a total of nine months, was in his best interest long term.
For me, the decision to redshirt was a no brainer. Prior to becoming a parent, I had the good fortune of teaching elementary school. One professional lesson I learned was that regardless of knowledge, in order for a child to do the work, he first needed to be ready to learn.
Mac wrestled with the idea. He has a “late” birthday and went to kindergarten on the younger side. Anytime we discussed Bubbe’s delays he’d say, “I hated school. Half the time I hardly knew what was going on. But life’s a struggle.”
“School’s hard enough,” I would argue. “Why make it worse for a child? If we push him through, what will his experience be like by the time he gets to middle school?”
After several iterations, Mac was able to take a step back and separate his experience from our son’s needs.
Since then, we have gone through the process of redshirting our younger son. I’ve also spent the last 10 of my 16 years in education working in early childhood programs. Whether I’m chatting with friends or sitting with parents of young children, the topic of kindergarten readiness can elicit strong, mixed emotions, particularly if the choice isn’t a no brainer.
With this in mind, here are the two things Mac and I considered during the process.
Question #1 ― Is my child ready to learn?
Not “does Bubbe have the academic knowledge,” but is he socially, emotionally AND cognitively ready to learn in a school setting?
At the time of our decision, our child needed consistent adult guidance to get in the mix with peers in both structured and non-structured environments. He didn’t understand how to play cooperatively. His low muscle tone and delayed motor skills made it tough for him to keep up on the playground; he often looked lost and preferred to be alone. Furthermore, Bubbe didn’t have the self-help skills for a child his age. He couldn’t get dressed without assistance, put on his coat or use the potty.
While our son showed empathy and kindness toward others, his emotional sensitivity and shyness hindered his ability to advocate for himself, ask questions and navigate feelings. His discomfort in crowds as well as with noise and texture made it challenging for him to participate in groups scenarios like classroom station play and birthday celebrations.
We knew he was cognitively able. The “mechanisms of how one learns, remembers, problem-solves and pays attention” were present, but his struggle to move with the pack, manage time, attend long enough to listen to teacher directions and complete a task without help from a grown up emphasized the gap between his potential and performance.
Bubbe did have the academic knowledge. Testing showed he was “smart.” One helper teacher even suggested he might get bored once in elementary school if he waited the extra year.
But because Mac and I could not answer yes with confidence to all three components, we chose to wait.
Question #2 ― What will happen as my child gets older?
The delay, albeit the right move, was not a cure-all.
Despite his academic “smarts” going into kindergarten, Bubbe didn’t learn to read with fluency until 2nd grade.
In 3rd grade, when the work became more sophisticated, some weaknesses he struggled with in preschool resurfaced. Bubbe ended up needing a little formal help from teachers again.
During our early debates, Mac and I wondered about middle school. How would Bubbe’s delays play out as a tween?
Well, the first year of middle school is half over and so far, the kid’s holding his own. Focus, organization, time management and interpreting complex situations continue to challenge and fuel anxiety. Fortunately, Bubbe is starting to understand his needs and take ownership of his learning thanks to consistent guidance from talented teachers, practice and maturity.
He’s told us being the oldest in the class is “kind of cool” especially to some of the girls. I’ve observed he is one of, but not the tallest boy in the grade as well as noticed some of the peers he started out with are still in his world through activities and family friendships.
Of course we get the occasional, “You left me back.”
When he digs in, the response is the same one Mac and I gave when we broke the news. “Some children start kindergarten when they’re 4, some start when they’re 5 and some start when they’re 6 years old. Every child and family is different.”
The bottom line? School life would have been exponentially more difficult for our child had we not “left him back.” Bubbe is right where he belongs.
Redshirting isn’t for every child with a special need, late birthday or height difference. Our son has a grade level friend who’s 16 months younger. Even though the boy’s birthday is in the late fall, his mother felt his social, emotional and cognitive skills were on point. She sent him to elementary school when the district deemed him eligible. He too is thriving.
Kindergarten readiness is a stop on a long parenting journey. But I think if we keep perspective, stay objective, focus on learning readiness, advocate and most importantly, follow our gut, we’ll get the timing right.
This post also appeared on TODAY Parents.