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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Should You 'Redshirt' Your Child?

Nov 17, 2006 12:00AM

The starting line for the race to kindergarten has changed drastically over the last five years. No longer is it a foregone conclusion that your five-year-old child will start kindergarten in the fall. With many kindergarten classes extending to full days, and academic standards increasing, a small but increasing number of parents are deciding to “redshirt” their children and give them an extra year so that they may be more successful in school.

The term “redshirting” originally refers to postponing a college athlete’s participation for one year to give him or her an extra year to grow and practice so that he or she will be more successful in the coming year. The term “academic redshirting” has been applied to young children whose parents chose to wait a year to enter their child in kindergarten to give them extra time for socio-emotional, intellectual or physical growth and improving their likelihood of success.

Often redshirting—also known as the “graying of kindergarten”— is chosen for children whose birthdays are so close to the cut-off dates that they may be the youngest in their kindergarten class, raising parental concerns of maturity and academic readiness.

The idea of holding children back a year isn’t necessarily a new idea, but the term redshirting has a more positive ring to it and growing support from parents. Parents are asking, “Why not start school later so my child can get the most out of it? Be more successful, more competitive?”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of boys starting kindergarten at about age 6 or older has gone up, from 7 percent of boys in 1970 to 18 percent in 2001. The number of girls has increased also, but from 5 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2001.

Rather than age being the sole determining factor for kindergarten readiness, many teachers, administrative staff, and parents are using other skills and behaviors to predict early school success. This includes a range of indicators, such as the ability to sit and focus, language skills, independence, fine motor skills, letter and number awareness, and following step-by-step directions.

“My son Tony was very interested in reading, and could already do so when he started kindergarten,” says Julie Fadda Eastman, a Santa Rosa mother of two boys. “The thing he had trouble with was the social aspect, in the sense that he had to pay attention in class rather than goof off like in preschool.” So while he seemed ready academically and cognitively, she felt he wasn’t necessarily mature enough socially.

Most kindergarten teachers agree that there are different criteria for readiness. “Incoming kindergarten students should be able to sit through a story in one sitting, be able to share and take turns with other children, have spent time comfortably away from their parents or caregivers before, and can separate from their parents to join activities in school,” says Jessica Morton, a 32-year veteran kindergarten teacher at Mendocino Grammar School.

However, not all kindergarten teachers consider these skills necessary before starting school. “I would encourage all five-year-olds to go to kindergarten,” says Kathleen Newart, a kindergarten teacher at Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa. “Even if the child seems immature, the right school will help them work on these issues.”

Many kindergarten programs, both public and private, are offering free assessments to parents to help them make a more informed decision on whether to send their child to school that year.

“Typically we have one or two five-year-olds [out of a group of forty] that we recommend wait a year,” says Donna Pierson-Pugh, the principal at Anderson Valley Elementary School and a former kindergarten teacher.

Yulupa Elementary School in Santa Rosa is taking a different approach to readiness assessments. Yulupa already offers an in-depth registration process for new parents, including: a parents orientation; a Q&A session with teachers, principal Sue Simon and current students’ parents; an open house; and kindergarten assessments held on two Saturdays.

Principal Simon is quick to point out that the assessment process isn’t designed to “weed out” kids who aren’t ready for kindergarten, though that has happened once or twice, but more to help balance the classes. “We respect that it is the parents decision but we want to provide them with as much input based on our experiences that we can.”

In addition to the registration process to prepare parents and kids for kindergarten, Yulupa has also started a pre-kindergarten summer school. “The program is not as much academic as it is social, helping the children learn the routine and feel more comfortable with school. We’ve found that there are a lot less trauma, a lot less tears in the fall” because the children know the classroom, they know where the bathroom is, and can make the transition easier.

“I think parents need to look at their own child and not the age,” says Claire Gago, a mom of three boys in Petaluma. “Just because their child is five or the five-year-old next door is going off to kindergarten does not mean that their child will be ready.”

Tanya Alexander, a Cloverdale mother of two agrees. “Readiness has to do with a combination of emotional, academic, socialization, plus the simple behavioral necessities (can listen to instructions, stand in line quietly, keep hands to self, etc.) I think all of these factors play a big role in determining readiness on an individually assessed basis.”

“I did this for both my sons. Even though my older son was way ahead in his reading, he was right where he needed to be, socially and physically. Later he ended up skipping tenth grade,” says Pierson-Pugh. He has since graduated from California Institute of Technology, and is finishing his Ph.D. in robotics at the Swiss Institute of Technology. Her younger son is a senior completing his engineering degree at Harvey Mudd College. “That extra year, the added success and confidence that they gain—it does make a significant difference. I would not have done it any differently.”

Linnea Totten, a kindergarten teacher at Anderson Valley Elementary, agrees. “It’s very rare that parents have regrets if they wait a year but they often regret it the other way. Besides it’s much easier to accelerate later.”

Cost is a factor in whether to redshirt as well. “Every year parents struggle with this...because of the cost of child care or the convenience of busing. Most end up enrolling their child anyway, despite their concerns. They often regret it later,” says Pierson-Pugh. Redshirting is also more common in private schools than in public schools.

Research suggests that redshirting is more common in higher income areas, where the cost of daycare or preschool (upwards of $5000 a year) may have less of an impact.

Newart says that parents have to be ready, too. “Is the mother and father ready to let their child to go to kindergarten? Can they watch him deal with the larger school dynamics? Can they envision their child dealing with a bully, or not winning a race, or feeling left out of a group? Today’s parents have to be ready for their child to experience the world.”

Given the variety of reasons that parents consider academic redshirting, it’s not surprising that there are varying opinions. Recent research suggests that academic redshirting can raise the child’s academic achievement, on par or above that of younger classmates, and improve the child’s social interactions. On the other hand, some older children may feel alienated from their younger classmates, who may recognize an unfair advantage in size and social skills.

In grades 1st through 3rd, redshirting can lead to academic performance on par with grade level peers, a lower likelihood of receiving “negative feedback” from teachers about academic performance or conduct and less need for special education than classmates that were retained as kindergartners.

It is common sense that there would be advantages to being older at the start of school. But recent research has shed a light on just how motivating it can be. Among top soccer players from a number of countries, a much larger percentage were born in the first quarter (just after the age cutoff date) than the general population. Researchers theorized that the older children enjoyed an early advantage, and that the early success may have motivated them to continue on.

However, research also indicates that redshirted students require more special educational services than students who started kindergarten based on their age (non-redshirted, non-retained students). One theory is that parents may be unable to distinguish between school readiness and some learning disabilities. Parents may think that a child isn’t ready for school yet when in fact the child may benefit more from early intervention with special education or learning disability services.

Principal Simon advocates getting help in the decision process if you are having trouble. “What is your child’s preschool teacher saying? Often they can make great recommendations, because of their experience with other children, as well as your own.”

Each child has a unique set of circumstances that factor into this important decision. Take the time to consider your child’s social and academic development. Ask your preschool or kindergarten teacher for input because while you know your child, the teacher has seen hundreds of children your child’s age and can be better equipped to put your child’s abilities and maturity in context. You are not alone in wanting the best for your child.

Nicole Westmoreland is a freelance writer and mother of two boys who went off to kindergarten at five years old.