My son recently made it to the travel soccer team in our district. When I went to watch his first match, I was struck by how much taller and bigger some of his teammates were compared to him. I found out that the biggest kid on the team was a year older than the rest, and after talking to his parents, I learned that they had voluntarily chosen to delay his kindergarten year — to redshirt him.
Redshirting: Meaning and Extent
You might recognize the term redshirting from college athletics, where it describes a coach’s decision to have a player sit out a few seasons until he or she is at the same level as the rest of the team. When it comes to education, redshirting refers to the practice of willingly holding back a child for a year before enrolling him or her in kindergarten. It is sometimes referred to as the “gift of time,” since parents are extending their child’s preschool years by delaying the academic and developmental challenges of kindergarten.
There are different estimates of redshirting prevalence in the U.S. In a 2007 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, experts stated that 96 percent of six-year-olds were enrolled in first grade in 1968. By 2005, this number had dropped to 84 percent.
While some of the decline is due to changes in enrollment cut-off dates, the researchers attributed a bulk of the decline to the practice of redshirting. Still, redshirting appears to be on a downward trend; a study of students in one state over several years found that redshirting rates had dropped to 4.5% by 2012, and that the practice was most common in schools with high-income populations.
Why Do Parents Opt to Redshirt?
I spoke to some parents and a couple of teachers to get a sense of why parents choose to redshirt. The most common reason I heard, mostly from parents of boys who were born close to the cut-off dates, was that they believed their kids were not emotionally mature enough to start elementary school.
Their decision had less to do with academic concerns than with their child’s behavior and attention span. Parents worried that their child’s inability to focus might adversely affect his success and confidence. They believed he would fare better if he were older than his classmates. Teachers I spoke to agreed that there was really nothing wrong with giving kids an extra year to ease their transition to kindergarten.
Apart from emotional maturity, another motivation often mentioned in academic research is parents’ desire to help their kids excel in sports. In the early years, being the oldest in a class often means being the biggest or tallest— traits that put kids at an athletic advantage.
What Does the Research Show?
Several studies have been conducted to assess the impact of redshirting, and the overall results are mixed. A 2004 study by Ashlesha Datar, an economist from the University of Southern California, found that students who were delayed from starting kindergarten had higher test scores and better academic performance than their peers in both kindergarten and second grade.
This academic advantage doesn’t seem to last, however. After conducting a review of several studies, Deborah Stipek of Stanford University concluded that whatever gains may exist in the early elementary years disappear by the end of upper elementary school. She also noted that the research shows no particular areas of concern regarding the social, emotional, and motivational development of relatively younger students in a class. In fact, the pendulum swings the other way in 2007 data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, with researchers concluding that an average kindergartener benefits from exposure to more mature peers.
The one area where older kids do seem to maintain an edge is in sports, according to data from both Europe and the U.S.
To Redshirt or Not?
For parents, especially those with kids whose birthdays are close to the cut-off, the question of redshirting looms large.
Beyond weighing the potential emotional, academic, and athletic merits of the practice, families must also consider the costs of redshirting. For many, paying for an additional year of preschool would present an undue (if not altogether insurmountable) financial burden.
In my own house, both kids have summer birthdays that are very close to the school cut-off dates. We had the redshirting debate, and in the end we relied on our children’s preschool teachers’ input: they felt that our kids would be able to handle the social and academic demands of kindergarten, and we followed their guidance. So far, we haven’t regretted our decision.