Academic Redshirting

By Eric Christensen

June 2, 2014 5 min read

Parents have to make many difficult choices, knowing a decision today can affect a child's entire life. For parents of children with summer birthdays, one of these tough decisions is when to start kindergarten. Some parents are intentionally holding their children back a year so that their children will begin school with a head start. Although parents think they are doing what's best, schools and scientists aren't so sure it is the right decision for every child.

Intentionally delaying a child's entry into kindergarten is known as "academic redshirting," a play on a term referring to collegiate athletes who don't compete for a year in order to develop their talent. Parents engage in academic redshirting for a combination of reasons. Chiefly, it is because they feel their child needs another year to mature and develop. Lori Day, educational psychologist, author and consultant at Lori Day Consulting, says, "Reasons include issues of stamina to get through the day; social maturity; behavior; the ability to focus, sit still, and be a good student."

Another reason is the belief that an older child will test better, earning better class placement and academic rewards throughout their education. Jessica Kelmon, associate editor at GreatSchools, a nonprofit children's education website, agrees. "For many kids, kindergarten is their first time at school, and kindergarten is getting increasingly academic. ... Kids used to learn a lot in kindergarten, but now kids are expected to come to kindergarten with certain skills, and that can be tough."

The scientific evidence for the benefits of academic redshirting is mixed, particularly when studied over the long term. Day says, "In cases where it's simply a question of development and maturity, holding a child back for a year often does benefit the child for their entire schooling." But many children have other issues that can complicate things. For example, Day cites children with undiagnosed: "Holding a child back generally does not help that in the long term. What they need is the proper services and teaching approaches." Kelmon says, "I think that something so individualized as a child's education, it's hard to draw conclusions that will fit one mold. But I will continue to watch these studies."

Schools also have a mixed response to academic redshirting. Day notes, "School administrations care a lot about test scores, so they are happy if kids are older and test better." Kelmon reports that some school districts are even considering raising the age at which children start kindergarten, partly due to this pressure to report high test scores. However, Day warns, "Individual classroom teachers struggle more with trying to meet the needs of students with a broad range of ages."

Another concern about academic redshirting is that it may exacerbate class divides. Kelmon says, "If you think your child may not be ready, what will your child do instead? If your area has a quality pre-K program, wonderful -- if you can get in. If not, this can be an expensive decision." Day, who does a lot of work with private school students, says, "Some private schools are looking for older students and really stacking the deck in that regard."

Ultimately, decisions about a child's education are personal. Accordingly, both Day and Kelmon suggest parents get individualized advice before making decisions. Day says, "Parents can talk to either an educational psychologist, who can perform testing or talk parents through the process. Schools offer kindergarten screening and feedback on how your child is doing developmentally." Kelmon advises parents to "talk to your child's preschool or daycare providers. They know so much (about your child). Also, ask other parents, especially those who have considered redshirting before attending the school your child will attend."

Choosing when and where to educate your child is a complicated decision. Depending on your child's unique characteristics, redshirting might prove very beneficial. On the other hand, your child might be ready to start kindergarten early. The worst option would be to game the system. In such cases, the benefits might be small or nonexistent, but the bills will not be.

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