This week thousands of 5-year-old children in the U.S. and in the Austin area will be getting onto school buses to head toward their first day of kindergarten. But, there is a growing group of 5-year-olds that will not be getting on the bus; but will instead be staying in preschool for another year. It’s a dilemma many parents of young children face, particularly parents of children who are on the edges of school age cut-offs: “Should I hold my child back for an extra year?”

What is Redshirting?
Delaying a child’s entrance into kindergarten – often called redshirting after the collegiate practice of having athletes who are postponing play for a year wear red shirts on the sidelines –  has become more common in the past few decades. The rise in redshirting corresponds to a systemic increase in the rigor and structure of kindergarten curriculum. Parents hope that holding their children back a year will give them a competitive advantage as a result of being more developmentally advanced than their peers. This reasoning is based upon data from athletics showing that children born right after an age cut-off (so, they would end up being the oldest on the playing field), have a competitive advantage. Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his popular book Outliers: The Story of Success that Canadian boys born in early January (right after the January 1st birthday cut-off) had a much greater likelihood of becoming hockey stars.

But, does this logic hold in other settings? Being the biggest and most developed child can convey a competitive advantage in some sports, but is this is the case in academic settings? The short answer is, not really. Although some early studies indicated that there was a competitive advantage to being the oldest in a class, more recent investigations have revealed that redshirting can actually do harm in the long-run. Indeed, the National Association for the Education of Young Children strongly recommends against redshirting.

What Does the Research Tell Us?
As outlined in a recent article in the New Yorker, studies have found that older and bigger kindergarten students perform better (they are less likely to receive negative feedback from teachers, have higher test scores, and fewer reported problems concentrating), but only initially. Such early advantages takea sharp turn downward and are essentially gone by 8th grade and, by college, relatively older students consistently lag behind. A study in 2006 involving 15,000 students from California and Texas found that redshirted children performed worse on standardized tests in 10th grade, were twice as likely to drop out of school, and were less likely to graduate from college. The only positive outcome in these children was that they were more likely to play varsity sports (again, a competitive physical advantage). These results were further supported by other studies such as a Harvard investigation in 2008 which found that delayed academic entry resulted in lower rates of high school and college completion and lower lifetime earnings. It is important to note, however, that these results are based on correlations (which don’t prove causation) and it’s possible that redshirted children were more likely to have delayed school entry due to learning or developmental concerns that then contributed to their increased negative outcomes.

Perhaps even more convincing is a well-designed investigation conducted by economists in Tennessee in 2007. In the study, students were randomly assigned to kindergarten classrooms in order to remove the potential effects of parents or educators influencing a child’s class placement. Children were not necessarily redshirted, but by chance some were oldest and some were youngest in their respective classrooms. Investigators then examined how a child’s relative age in the class influenced long-term outcomes and they found that children who were older than their classmates scored significantly lower on achievement tests (both in kindergarten and in middle school), were more likely to repeat a year, and were less likely to take college-entrance exams.

So, why might a child who is relatively younger be at an advantage? The predominant hypothesis is that children who are surrounded by older peers in the classroom receive a developmental boost from the increased stimulation and challenge of their environment. Essentially, they have to strive to keep up with their older peers and this increases their rate of learning and development with lasting effects. This hypothesis is supported by other developmental psychology research that finds that grades with mixed age levels have a positive effect for the younger students, but only when the majority of the students are older.  Younger children are able to level the playing field through their consistent efforts in an intellectually and academically challenging environment.

How To Decide
The question parents should ask themselves when deciding whether to redshirt is: Do I want my child to have a short-term advantage or a long-term one? While a younger 5-year-old in kindergarten may have to work a bit harder to keep up with older peers, that challenge creates an environment in which a child is pushing his/her limits and learning that through hard work and persistence (what researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit”) they can reach the level of their peers. The decision to redshirt your child is an individual one based upon many factors such as finances, a child’s emotional development, and fit with a kindergarten setting. While there are no certainties when it comes to how your individual child might be impacted by the decision to redshirt, based on current data, it would likely be wise to think twice about holding him/her back a year.

Up next, we’ll outline some questions that can help you decide whether to redshirt or not. As always, if you have serious concerns about your child’s development and/or readiness for kindergarten, please consult with a professional to discuss your observations as well as the possibility of a comprehensive evaluation.

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