Kindergarten today is more academic than it has ever been. Kindergartners spend more time in teacher-led, seat-bound activities than they do in self-directed learning or outdoor play. Some teachers are troubled by this trend: During a recent strike, Seattle teachers fought for longer recesses and more playtime during the school day. Ultimately, the teachers did get a longer school day — to cover more academic work.
These new learning trends have led many parents to wonder if maybe kindergarten is not for 5-year-olds anymore.
Parents of 3- and 4-year-olds try to picture their prospective kindergartners being required to sit still, keep quiet, write neatly with a pencil, produce sheets of letters and numbers that demonstrate growing academic skills, and even read.
We think back nostalgically to our own imaginative kindergarten play, complete with floor naps on tiny mats. We read that in Finland, children don’t start formal school until age 7 and are not formally instructed to read until then. We recall Malcolm Gladwell’s citations in Outliers of leading hockey players being older — won’t the taller, more coordinated and stronger children be more likely later to qualify for select sports teams?
Some parents of spring- and summer-born children, or small and physically less coordinated children, watch their children’s more “mature” peers and worry that their kids will be left in the dust, bullied, overwhelmed. And what about the socially shy, more emotionally sensitive child: How will she cope in a classroom that expects regulation, self-expression and self-advocacy? What if the larger classroom is just too stimulating? With the “gift of time,” isn’t the child likely to become socially confident and develop as a leader instead of a follower?
Is it any wonder some parents opt for another year of preschool for those spring- and summer-born boys and girls?
Not just athletes anymore
“Redshirting,” a term once reserved for college athletes, is now used to describe the choice made by parents to delay their children from starting kindergarten at age 5, waiting instead to start them at age 6. According to U.S. Census data from October 2013, 20 percent of kindergartners today started the school year at 6 years old — more than twice the percentage in the 1990s. Boys are twice as likely to be held back as girls. In some kindergartens, more than half the boys are older than 6. Data also shows wealthy families are more likely to hold back their children.
Experts debate the long-term advantages of redshirting. One body of research, published in The Journal of Human Resources, shows that, based on test scores, older students do better academically in the early years, and that the academic and social advantages gained by redshirting last into eighth grade. Gladwell’s research, cited in Outliers, also corroborates the argument for athletic advantage gained by older students.
Along the same lines, a recent study by Thomas Dee at Stanford University “found strong evidence that a one-year delay dramatically improves a child’s self-regulation abilities even into later childhood.”
“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11,” Dee says. This research supports holding back active younger children.
Few researchers dispute the early academic and social advantages of kindergarten redshirting. But by the time students get to eighth grade, any disparity has largely evened out.
By college, younger students repeatedly outperform older ones in any given year.
Holding back backfires later
In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California analyzed national data collected over many years from 15,000 26-year-olds. They compared outcomes for redshirted and non-redshirted students. They found that the redshirted students performed worse on 10th-grade tests, were twice as likely to drop out of school and were less likely to graduate from college; the only advantage to redshirting was that redshirted kids were marginally more likely to play varsity sports in high school.
When a group of economists followed Norwegian children born between 1962 and 1988, they found that, at age 18, children who had started school a year later had IQ scores that were significantly lower than their younger counterparts. Their earnings also suffered: Through age 30, men who started school later earned less.
Recent research on grit, effort and mindset as markers for success is also worth considering. Psychologist and author Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, which emphasizes the benefits of a growth mindset, is based on the belief that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but instead is built from effort, belief in oneself and persistence. Younger students constantly face their limits: They learn to work hard and to persevere. They aren’t bored.
While there’s no consensus among experts, a more nuanced understanding of the impacts of redshirting is emerging. To quote a recent article in The Atlantic: “A new study published in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy offers perhaps the latest piece of evidence that redshirting is little more than a silly fad — or, as one pair of economists put it in 2009, a ‘suburban legend.’”
Knowing our children
When research doesn’t help, I turn to my own intuition and understanding of my children. As the parent of two summer-born boys, I have wrestled with this question for a long time. My oldest entered kindergarten at age 5. As one of the youngest students, he finds himself in a classroom with peers who are 12–15 months older. Yet he was emotionally and socially ready, curious and enthusiastic about kindergarten, and there was no way I could have held him back.
I consulted with other professionals, and they all agreed, though my husband did not. Ultimately, we put him in, having faith that our boy’s curiosity, enthusiasm and social fluency would support him in kindergarten, and they have. Yet four years later, I sometimes still ask myself if it was the right choice, especially when he has academic struggles. Would another year have mitigated this struggle? And then a calm internal voice quells my concern: I remember that hard work and persistence in a happy setting never killed anyone! It will only make him stronger.
Now, I have another summer-born boy and a second choice. He is so different from his brother. I find myself weighing many factors as I consider what is right for him. In the past six years, classrooms and schools have also changed. And this boy is a second-born who is constantly trying to keep up with his older brother. What might it mean for him to walk into a classroom where he is also trying to reach up? What might it mean for him to be in a classroom where he is older and sailing smoothly, no sweat on his brow?
If learning comes easily to him, what will he do when he faces a challenge? What is right for this boy?
One can never predict the future, so the decision of when to enter kindergarten cannot be based on trying to forecast what is down the line in a child’s education. Instead, the decision must be squarely grounded in the knowledge of your child as a preschooler.
Yes, that is nerve-racking, given all the research and all that is still unknown. Yet we only know who a child is in the present moment. Trust in the child and in your capacity as a family, and it will lead you to a committed decision.
Making the choice
Ultimately, research, personal experience and my work with families as an education coach have led me to these three tips:
1. The decision to start kindergarten at age 5 or 6 is an individual decision for each family based on each child. While there is a growing trend in the Seattle area to hold back spring- and summer-born kids, it is not clear that this decision will gain any advantage, or any long-term advantage.
It might even hurt your child later on.
2. Social and emotional readiness and physical development are also significant factors to consider in the early years, beyond cognitive and academic abilities.
3. Kindergarten teachers look for three different factors in terms of readiness, and these factors are worth considering. Students ready for kindergarten are:
- Physically healthy, well-nourished and have support for any physical difficulties
- Self-confident and self-regulated; able to express their feelings, ask for what they need, listen to others’ feelings, can work by themselves for a short period of time, and can be resourceful to a small degree when they encounter a problem
- Curious and enthusiastic about learning