If all had gone according to plan, my son would have been one of the older kids in his grade throughout his school years. Even though he turned 5 by our state's kindergarten cutoff date, we agreed with his preschool teachers' assessment that he didn't seem emotionally ready and "redshirted" him by delaying kindergarten for a year.
It worked well for a time, but by second grade, his teacher was regularly sending him next door to a third-grade classroom for math and reading. Just a few weeks into the school year, she told us he really should be in third grade.
I resisted. While the second-grade boys still had small traces of softness, the third-graders had none. Some were a head taller than my son. They wore Nikes, and he still wore Stride Rites. With his emotional immaturity and small-kid vulnerability, masked by a tart-tongued bravado, I worried he'd flounder socially with the older kids.
But he was already struggling, I had to admit, as I consoled him one afternoon during a fit of frustration. I asked if it was hard going to third grade. He said he wasn't in third grade, or second grade, really, and he felt like he didn't fit anywhere. He was crying, and it pained me that I'd inadvertently created a separate, lonely category for him, making him feel like an outsider in both classrooms.
As we learned, redshirting — even when done with the best of intentions and with input from educational professionals — may need to be reconsidered as your child develops.
The term "redshirting" originally referred to college athletes who sat out their first year to work on their skills without affecting their eligibility. The intent is similar for would-be kindergartners: By providing younger kids an extra year to develop physically, socially and emotionally, the expectation is that they'll be better equipped to succeed.
Perhaps the most well-known arguments that support this come from Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted the entire first chapter of his 2008 book "Outliers" to the premise that being one of the oldest provides long-term advantages in school and beyond. In sports, just barely missing the cutoff date means you're up to a year older than your teammates and likely more physically mature and coordinated. That increases the odds you'll be a better athlete and thus given more opportunities, he argues, leading to what's known as "accumulative advantage." The same dynamic occurs in the classroom, he says.
More recently, a survey of data collected by Truven Health MarketScan Research Database between 2007 and 2015, which was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that older kids are less likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder than their youngest kindergarten classmates.
That's in keeping with the results of a 2018 report in Health Economics that Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, co-authored, based on children in Denmark. He found that older kids were better at self-regulation than their youngest peers, who tended to be less attentive and had higher levels of hyperactivity. As Dee explained to me, the extra year "often gives children more extended exposure to play-based environments, [which are] really critical for children's capacity to develop self-regulation."
On the flip side, others believe being in the classroom with older peers helps the younger kids develop these skills. "The younger kids kind of look up . . . to the older kids and model themselves after that (and) try to keep up," says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy. She acknowledges that younger kids may initially have a harder time with self-control, but, citing a 2016 Education Finance and Policy study she co-wrote, says "they can learn from the older kids how to sit still during story time or stay on task. To the extent that they're less emotionally mature and physically mature, there are small disadvantages, but in most cases those disadvantages are quickly overcome."
Redshirting also has a long-term economic cost, as Schanzenbach noted in a 2017 EducationNext research review she co-wrote, because those kids enter the workforce a year later. There can be a short-term financial impact, too, given that redshirting generally "means you're paying for an additional year (of preschool)," says Bruce Atchison, the principal at the Education Commission of the States.
Moreover, in opting to redshirt, parents are predicting their child's future readiness for kindergarten, given that enrollment decisions are made many months before the child would start school. But "kids don't grow in a linear fashion," Schanzenbach says. "Sometimes, you find yourself . . . in April or May when you're trying to make this decision and you think (your kid) is not going to be ready for kindergarten . . . but then they hit these growth spurts, and they would have done great."
Part of the challenge is that there isn't a "magic age at which you should enter kindergarten," says Hawaii State Rep. Roy Takumi, a Democrat who served as vice chairman of the Education Commission of the States from 2015 to 2017. Although most states require children entering kindergarten to turn 5 by late summer or early fall, some, such as Connecticut, set the date as late as Jan. 1 of the kindergarten school year, meaning some kids are 4 when they start. Some states continue to tinker with their cutoffs. Indiana just shifted the date a month later to Sept. 1 (the date changes again to Oct. 1 next year), while Oklahoma recently considered moving the cutoff date in the opposite direction, from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1. And there are states, including Massachusetts, that don't set a specific date, instead allowing the decision to be made locally.
"No matter when you set it, you're always going to have a classroom of kids who have at least 12 months of developmental difference," says Kristie Kauerz, who directs the National P-3 Center at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado, Denver.
In our case, redshirting seemed to be the best option based on the information we had at the time. But by second grade, his situation had changed, and being one of the oldest students in his class was no longer working. We needed to reevaluate, which meant parent-teacher conferences with my son's second-grade teacher, his potential third-grade teacher and the principal.
Because my son had already been visiting the third-grade classroom daily for math and reading, the kids there knew him. He even had his own desk. And yet the decision felt even more stressful than our initial decision to redshirt him had been, because the other students would be aware of the move. What if it didn't work out? Moving him back to second grade didn't seem like a realistic option. The third-grade teacher reassured us that he seemed ready both academically and socially. We acquiesced, and he became an official third-grader a few weeks later. (Not long after, he started wearing Nikes.) After all of the discussions and preparations and angst-filled analysis, the actual change was low-key.
Kauerz notes that there can be other options besides switching grades. Ideally, a teacher could accommodate a situation like ours by providing differentiated instruction. At a large school, moving a child to a different classroom at the same grade level is a possibility, given that a different mix of students may be a better fit. "These are all conversations (to have with) the teachers and/or the school principal," Kauerz says. "There really needs to be a team-based approach."
My son's teacher was the one who raised the issue, but Kauerz says parents can and should initiate the conversation if it seems as though the current grade isn't a fit.
As for my son, he recently headed off to college, a bit younger than his classmates, but otherwise no different.
I wish I could have predicted the trajectory of his development and made a different choice initially. As with so many other parenting decisions, though, it was a judgment call and provided a good lesson: Make the best decision you can at the time, be willing to course-correct as needed and know that, as Kauerz says, it's probably all going to end up okay.