Ready, Set, Wait: When to Redshirt Your Kindergartner

(As published in Naperville Magazine, April 2015)
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By Karen Dix

Every parent of a preschooler knows the significance of the date, September 1st .  If a preschooler turns five-years-old on or before that date, they can start kindergarten that year.

However, a trend of delaying kindergarten entry, or “redshirting”, is beginning to emerge.  “Redshirting” is a term commonly applied in the sports world to rookie players who are temporarily benched so they can emerge later in the season better prepared to perform. For the incoming kindergartner, it means waiting an extra year to start school, at their parent’s discretion.

Why Redshirt?  

Neither Naperville Districts 203 nor 204 have statistics readily available for the number of children who are redshirted for kindergarten entry each year. However, nationally, the statistic hovers around six percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Sometimes parents do it because their child has learning disabilities or other behavioral problems that they believe may improve by delaying school for a year. Often, however, they do it to give the child a competitive advantage either academically, socially or athletically. They believe if their child is the oldest in the class, they will be the smartest. If they are more physically developed, they may outperform their peers on the playing field. They want to give their child a late start to possibly achieve college academic and athletic scholarships down the road, or social advantages, like getting their license first in their class.

Research on redshirting, however, is not conclusive. The Illinois Early Learning Project (Illinoisearlylearning.org), which is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education as a source for reliable, education-related information for the benefit of families and teachers in our state, cites various results of many national studies on redshirting. One suggests that redshirted students have more behavioral problems. Another analyzed 8,000 student records to see if there were any patterns in promotion/retention and receipt of special services and achievement. They found that the younger students were more likely to receive special services. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that redshirted children performed slightly higher in reading at the end of first grade, but fell behind the others in math.

Pitfalls of Redshirting

While the benefits of redshirting aren’t exactly clear, redshirting has many staunch critics that believe the practice can be detrimental. Redshirting your child in expectation that they achieve more, can lead to the dangerous practice of parent-driven “performance theory” according to Jennifer Mangan, a certified parent coach at Alliance Clinical Associates. “Parents are worried their kids won’t do well against their peers. We have parents getting their kids into competitive sports at eight years old so they can make the high school team,” said Mangan. “The child can get the message that if they don’t perform well, they are not good enough. And when you don’t feel good enough, you feel shame.” Mangan said this shame can manifest itself negatively in anger, isolation, people pleasing or perfectionism, which can lead to the spectrum of eating disorders. It can also affect the parent-child relationship.

“When the child feels they have to perform well to be ok with their parents, the relationship suffers. It’s all about what grades they get or how many goals they made.  There has to be a balance,” she said.

Redshirting for Social Reasons

“Redshirting can also put children in a class with younger peers, which can sometimes pose social challenges,” said Jada Hudson, LCPC of Hudson Clinical Counseling.

Hudson had a patient who was held back from starting kindergarten because of his July birthday and his underdeveloped gross and fine motor skills. “He was unable to hold a pencil well, so we were advised to delay kindergarten,” said his mother. “Instead, we enrolled him in a rigorous, academic pre-K program.”  From kindergarten through third grade, Hudson’s patient was fine. Then in fourth grade, he became bored academically and began to relate socially to the children in the higher grades.  His parents removed him from the public school and enrolled him in a very small private school with an individualized learning program where he accelerated through the fifth and sixth grade curriculum in one year. They then re-enrolled him in the public school district in the seventh grade gifted program.

Hudson counseled the boy through the challenging social and academic transition, which was causing some anxiety.  While his mother said the transition was stressful, she said her son is now happily well- adjusted to his new peers and has straight A’s.  Her son says he enjoys being with his older peers and has remained friends with his former public and private school classmates.  His mother does not regret holding her son back for kindergarten, or the later academic path they chose. “It was the right thing to do at the time,” she said. “Now he is where he should be.”

When to Redshirt?

Both Hudson and Mangan agree that redshirting is always appropriate for a child with physical or learning difficulties, but redshirting for other reasons should be carefully considered.

“Parents should seek outside opinions before deciding to delay kindergarten,” said Mangan, “and most importantly, consider the big picture of their decision.”

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Should you delay kindergarten for your child?

The Illinois Early Learning website suggests these considerations:

  • Determine your reasons for wanting to hold back the child. Having a summer birthday is not enough.  Children develop at different speeds and some younger children are more kindergarten-ready than older ones.
  • Evaluate your child’s academic, physical and social readiness against the screening procedures at the district/school where you will place the child.
  • Find out what is expected of kindergartners and how you can best prepare your youngster academically and socially.
  • Talk to your child’s preschool teacher about his/her kindergarten readiness. Ask about academics as well as how your child deals with peers, follows directions and stays focused on tasks.
  • If your child still naps, consider their stamina and ability to tolerate a full-day program.
  • Find out how big the kindergarten class will be and consider whether your child can tolerate the group size.
  • Consider attending an academically stimulating, age-appropriate pre-K program to acclimate them to the work setting of kindergarten.

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