My Convertible Life

Monday, April 9, 2012

Redshirting in Kindergarten

High on my long list of worries as a mom was when to let Junius start kindergarten.

When he was born in early July, North Carolina's kindergarten cut-off date was in mid-October -- no reason for worry. But a couple years later, the state shifted the line to the end of August. Suddenly my summer baby was on track to be among the youngest kids in his class.

During his two-year-old preschool class, I met several moms who were already planning on holding their sons (and it's almost always sons) for an extra year of preschool because their birthdays were in (...wait for it...) APRIL. Under that plan, if Junius started school on time, he'd be 15 months younger than those kids in his class.

Ugh.

A year later, we moved and nearly all of Junius' friends -- even those with August birthdays -- started school on time. He was ready to go to kindergarten, and his preschool teacher confirmed that there was no reason to hold him back. Now as a fourth-quarter first-grader, he's doing fine, both socially and academically.

I'm not the first parent to wrestle with when to start my child in kindergarten -- and I certainly won't be the last. This article in the LA Times or this piece from a March episode of 60 Minutes show what a widespread issue redshirting has become. For some families, in the words of the 60 Minutes producer, deciding when to start your child in kindergarten feels like a bigger decisions than selecting a college.

So here's my caveat before I climb on my soapbox (you knew the soapbox was coming out, right?): All parents have to make decisions based on what is best for their family and for their children. Period. I fully recognize that the criteria I use for making those decisions may not apply in the same way for your family.

And now for the soapbox: Redshirting feels like an arms race. You have a child with an August birthday and you don't want him to be the youngest kid there, so you hold him back a year and he's 13 months older than his youngest classmate. So another mom gets nervous about that and she holds back her July baby and so her friend holds back his June baby and before you know it there's an 18-month age spread in one class.

Fast-forward a few months into kindergarten -- the kid who started at age 5 is just learning to read, while his classmate who started at age 6 1/2 is bored with early readers. Now the teacher in that classroom has to differentiate instruction across an even wider spectrum, making an already tough job even more challenging.

Redshirting is also an arms race in which only those with the luxury of child care can afford to participate. Holding your child out of public school for an extra year means that you can afford to stay home with that child or put that child in a private preschool or daycare.

The research on whether there's a real and lasting impact from school-start age is split. But I question how any study that examines the results for students who start on time versus those who start late can separate out other factors like family income, parent education levels and the like -- because if low-income families (which often corresponds with lower parent education levels) can't afford to redshirt their kids, then there's no way know what differences are caused by redshirting and what is simply the result of having parents with the resources to give a child every possible advantage.

The bottom line? Unless your child has a true disability -- like a physical impairment, cognitive disability or emotional delay -- then the cut-off date applies to you and you should abide by it. The date is arbitrary and it varies by state, but it's there for a reason. Worrying that your child might be smaller than the other kids in his class or might not be the fastest reader in her class are not legitimate reasons for holding them back. Kindergarten is all about growth -- while they're in school, they'll get taller, they'll learn, they'll develop, right along with their classmates.

And if you want to avoid the issue altogether, invest in some serious family planning to ensure that your baby is born in January.
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Okay, I'm off the soapbox now and bracing myself for the hate mail. What about you? Have you faced this issue with your kids? Or were you the youngest or oldest in your class growing up? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts.

24 comments:

  1. I have an interesting perspective. I was born on Oct. 20th, 20 days after the cut-off in my own city (Colorado Springs) in the seventies. Even though I passed all the tests with flying colors, the administrators convinced my parents not to push me forward (I guess the cut-off was slightly flexible) and they kept me home until I was almost 6. I arrived at kindergarten already reading. We moved to Germany and I subsequently was advanced to 2nd grade partway through the year and then straight to 3rd grade. The bummer was that I was reading way above grade level, but I missed stuff like multiplication tables, etc. So it did actually cause me some problems in the short term. Overall, I think it would have been better for me if I'd just been put in Kindergarten at the age of four. It was all a huge mess, really. My SIL is a school counselor and she says she's never met a parent who was sorry they held their kid back. But I'm definitely proof it can be problematic if done injudiciously. Being bored in school is almost as big a problem as not keeping up!

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    1. You're so right -- really have to consider the whole picture. And that was my fear for Junius, that he'd be bored in school and that would create more problems than being young.

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  2. :-) I will respectfully agree to disagree.
    My youngest is a late August baby and I'm holding her back this year. We have gone back and forth on the issue repeatedly, but finally cemented our decision when we let registration come and go without participating. Our decision isn't based on how we think she'll do in Kindergarten, it's more based on the later years, when being the youngest, smallest, etc. can have serious social repercussions. If we make 16 the age when she can date, drive, etc., she will be left out when many others start over a year before her. I hate that it matters, but it does.

    Honestly, I wish there was a hard and fast rule requiring kids to register when they were of age, so it would take the 'what if' out of the equation. But, since so many others are holding back August, July, and June kids, I plan to hold back, as well. I spend a ton of time in my first grader's class and there is a 14 month difference between the oldest and youngest and it's painfully obvious in every way.

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    1. I feel your struggle -- and I think a late August birthday makes it even harder since it's that much closer to the cut-off. But honestly, I'm fine with J getting his driver's license later than everyone else. As a December birthday, I was one of the first to drive among my friends, which meant I became the chauffeur for everyone else. And I agree with you -- if it was a hard rule and could remove the doubt for parents, I think it would be easier on everyone.

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  3. S was born on August 31st. Our town's cutoff date is September 1st. She will be the youngest. We're still a couple of years away, but I'm planning on sending her on time unless she shows a real deficiency of some sort. I won't hold her back just to keep her from being the youngest. As far as I can tell, being the oldest girl wouldn't be so great either. What's worse than still being the only flat-chested girl who likes ponies? How about being the only menstruating girl when the rest of your class still likes ponies. Any way you slice it, adolescence sucks.

    The biggest advantage we can give our children is to remember what it really felt like to go through all those grades, and be there to support them. Ensuring that our sons are the biggest and strongest hurts everyone. I totally agree with your arms race analogy.

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    1. Love this! Ponies, boobies, menstruation - Oh my.

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    2. Ugh. I can't even think about the teen years -- with my son or daughter, either way it makes my head hurt.

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  4. My son has an end of June birthday in NC and was sent on time. Academically everything is great, but socially it is a struggle and I don't see that going away soon. I was one of the youngest and developed later and it was hard. I'm glad for my daughter's October birthday.

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    1. Yup -- I'm relieved that Pippi is a February baby. Nothing to worry about.

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  5. You know our boys fell just on either side of the cut off--S could not go and is "naturally" the oldest in the class and we held B back. We had a an interesting thing happen last week in the K class. My inlaws were in class for grandparents day and the kids read a book they wrote out loud. Only two boys couldn't read without assistance from their grandparents -- one has some developmental issues, but the other little boy is simply 14 months younger than Sammy. I felt bad when I heard that story because his mother had told me that she had struggled with her decision and decided to send him. It kind of broke my heart for him and I hope it did not take the wind out of his sails so young. Long story short, you can see how it is that virtually everyone here (which is, as you pointed out, an area of more affluence and parental options) is holding back because the arms race has already happened and passed on by!
    STK

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    1. Would be interesting to do a study to see if more kids in charter schools or private schools don't go to kindergarten "on time" with a summer birthday than in traditional public schools.

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  6. We had my oldest go to a 5's class. He has a September birthday and the class did wonders for him. Academically he could have started kindergarten but socially he was not ready yet. When he started kindergarten I felt he was where he was supposed to be. He is now in sixth grade and you can still see some of the differences between the "older" kids and the younger ones. My second child has a May birthday and she was more than ready to start school on time. My third also has a September birthday but that was the year they changed the cut off date so we didn't really have a choice. She is in first grade now and is above grade level on most things but she is enjoying school and hates to miss it. My youngest will be 5 this October so we have another year before he starts. He would not be ready even though he is taller than some of the kindergarteners now. I guess he will just be a tall kid.

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    1. Nice that at least you didn't have to make the decision with all your kids. And interesting to be able to see how it applies differently with different children, even within the same family.

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  7. I have to say I agree with Allison and respectfully disagree with LZ. I have an October birthday. I was always one of the youngest if not the youngest in my class. Last to turn 16, last to turn 21, etc. Yeah, It sucked sometimes. But so what? I wasn't the most confident kid on the planet and having a late birthday didn't kill what little confidence I had. Everyone has challenges. Mine was that I was a little younger and a little smaller. Big whoop.

    . I hate it that one of my closet friends held her son back when he was totally ready to go to kindergarten last year because she and he husband were worried he'd be smaller than the other boys. He's not small. He's average. And now he's going to have an artificial boost over other kids who he is a full year older than. It sucks. I wish school districts made it a rule that if your kid is born before Aug 31' he or she MUST go to kindergarten that year, unless he or she has a valid reason not to. It really infuriates me to see kids in my daughter's kindergarten class who are a full year older than others whose parents followed the rules, getting an unfair advantage because they are developmentally older than the other. And never mind the complications is poses for the teacher. Ugh.

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    1. Agreed -- I wish schools made it more of a rule that you had to win an exception to. That would help lessen the arms race effect. I think my biggest frustration around the whole debate is when parents are holding back because they want their kid to be the biggest -- that's totally not what school is about.

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  8. Being born in November I was always one of the youngest kids. I never had any issues with it. In fact when I picked up my second major on college and had to do the 5 year plan it all equaled out. Honestly it depends on your kid and what their needs are.

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    1. And as a December kid, I was one of the older (although not oldest) -- and my BFF, with a Sept. birthday is 9 months younger than me (and shorter, too). But I never felt like I had an advantage over her or that she was at a disadvantage. Glad it worked out for you :)

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  9. I'm so perplexed by the red shirting issue. My husband & I both have September birthdays & were always among the youngest in our classes. We both excelled & I took pride in excelling and being one of the youngest. At the very least, my age was never something that I felt hindered me. Am I quirky? Yes. Do I feel like I never fit in? Yes. I don't attribute that to my age, though.

    Daniel's bday is in June, and we plan to start him in kindergarten on time unless we have a very compelling reason not to do so.

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    1. Quirky is good. And I agree -- I think my birthdate had the least influence of anything on my success or failure in school.

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  10. BRAVA! Yes to everything you've said. I think we are screwing over poor kids. There. I said it.

    My twins have an Aug. 24 birthday. Our cut-off is August 31. They will start kindergarten next year on Aug. 15. That's 9 days as four-year-olds. I know for a fact they will be sitting in school with 6-year-olds.

    I decided not to hold my girls back, not because they are brilliant babes who are a head of the curve, but because they are right on schedule, scholastically and emotionally, for kindergarten. I want them to have access to the instruction they require as soon as possible. Because if they are going to turn out to be smarty-pants kids, they need more school sooner, not later.

    Studies of children with access to early education show that it helps children to be better educated adults, not because of their age relative to the standard grade level, but because the sooner they are exposed to learning, the better they fare throughout school. A 6-year-old isn't smarter or better equipped than a 5-year-old because of his age. He may be writing better or adding numbers because he's had an extra year of learning at home or in a pre-school. He does not become a competent writer, reader, or mathematician simply because he aged a year. Students become more educated when they are exposed to education. It's that simple.

    I don't begrudge families the right to make the best decision for their child. Every kid has different needs. However, I don't think all the children who are red-shirted in kindergarten need to be. And I don't think all the parents who red-shirt them have had the right guidance from school professionals or the research in hand to make that decision well. I imagine that a lot of these parents, while they may think long and hard about this issue, ultimately make a decision to hold their would-be kindergartner back out of fear.

    Well, why not? I'm certainly a bit afraid that when my girls go to school they will be so much younger and littler than their classmates that there could be an environment of bullying, condescension, and dismissal around the treatment of my kids---by students and teachers. When the age of your child's classmates is 12- to 18-months older, there may be a reason to be afraid.

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  11. I completely agree. My son has a 7/31 birthday (cut off 9/1) and unless there is a glaring reason standing in the way then I plan on sending him on time. He is only 1 but since he has a summer birthday people ask me all the time if I'll send him "early" or not. I wrote a post about it after a playground encounter if you want to give it a read. (http://www.dollopsofdiane.com/2011/11/is-daniel-ready-for-kindergarten.html)

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    1. Great post -- and seriously, you have plenty of things to think about right now without worrying about when he starts kindergarten.

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  12. We just had this issue to grapple with and I even wrote about it our blog too. I like your take, your caveat, your soapbox, and I respect your decision. We made the same decision for our boy, but let me tell you there was pressure---oh, was there pressure! Our private school could not understand why we would move forward, but the research doe NOT bear out holding back for anything other than a speech or developmental delay. Great topic, nice piece, Erin

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But enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think about me?