When should kids start kindergarten?

January 25, 2016

Redshirting kindergarten — holding kids back to start school later — is increasingly popular. But does redshirting help, or hurt, a child? The research may surprise you.

 

 

This fall, 4-year-old Luke will be starting kindergarten in Centerville, Ohio. He’ll be one of the youngest in his class — turning 5 just before the school year begins — and his mother is concerned.

Historically, the starting age for kindergarten has varied widely. In the past five years, both states and districts have pushed the minimum age to start kindergarten up so that more and more kids are at least 5 years old when they start school. Still, in states such as Connecticut and Maine (and certain districts in Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, and other states), you can easily find a 4½-year-old and a 6½-year-old in the same kindergarten class. That’s exactly what worries Luke’s mom, Deb Nelson, who has seen the difference just a few months can make, whether at home with her three sons ages 6, 4, and 3 or at school with the kids in her older son’s kindergarten class. Some kids are ready to read and write; others have trouble sitting still and paying attention. Being younger is particularly problematic as kindergarten becomes increasingly academic.

 

Delaying kindergarten is on the rise, both because state minimum ages are higher and because some parents are opting to wait until their children are older to start school. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2010-2011 school year only 6 percent of kids started kindergarten at age 4, 42 percent of kids were between 5 and 5½, 43 percent were between 5½ and 6 years old — and more than 9 percent of kids starting kindergarten had already turned 6. But will this benefit or hurt children in the long run? Educators and parents are wondering just that, as they weigh the potential risks of starting kids in kindergarten when they’re either much younger or much older than other kids in their class.

 

Why redshirt?

Nelson’s not only worried about kindergarten. “It’s junior high,” she says. “I don’t want him to be 11 when everyone else is turning 12 and have him be practically a year behind everybody in sixth or seventh grade.” Both concerns — for a child’s success in kindergarten and through adolescence — are driving forces behind the popular practice of “redshirting,” or delaying a child’s kindergarten entry by a year or more. (The term is borrowed from collegiate sports, where athletes will practice with the team for the first year, but sit out competition while they get bigger, stronger, and more competitive.)

Parents typically hold a child back because they feel he isn’t ready — cognitively, socially, or emotionally. Others may want to give their child a leg up, on the assumption that being older will make him more advanced. “In a lot of circles, it’s become the fad,” says Gary Painter, an associate professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development, who authored a paper on redshirting. “Particularly in