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Redshirting: The pros and cons of holding your child back a year

Many parents choose to delay their child's entrance to kindergarten, for an extra year of preschool and perhaps an "edge." But is this common practice a smart thing to do? Teachers and parents voice their opinions.

Parents and teachers discuss the practice of redshirting kids before kindergarten

You think your child is ready to start kindergarten, but some of your friends are choosing to hold their kids back a year. Now you’re wondering if that might be a smart move for your child, too. It’s difficult to know, and opinions vary.

What is redshirting?

Redshirting is a sometimes-controversial topic among parents who have kindergarten-age kids. The term, borrowed from the sports world, is used to describe the practice of delaying kindergarten entrance a year.

“Who can blame parents for wanting to delay sending their child to school so they have more time for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development?” says Jeff A. Johnson, an early childhood expert and a co-author of “Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum.”

However, is redshirting the right move for your child?

Common reasons why parents choose to redshirt:

To allow the child time to mature emotionally

“Sometimes, especially in children with summer birthdays, there is a clear need to have more time to develop skills of self-regulation and emotional processing before beginning structured academics,” says Colleen Payne, a certified teacher with two decades of experience, who is the director at Houston’s Country Day Montessori School.

To delay test pressure

“High-stakes, high-pressure testing has drastically changed the kindergarten landscape over the last two decades,” Johnson explains. He says many kindergarten teachers are now expected to teach content that wasn’t presented until first or second grade a decade ago. Payne says, “Kindergarten is increasingly test prep-oriented with expectations that require more maturity than in the past. Kindergarten today is not all social skills and eating paste.”

To provide the child with an advantage

Although the practice is controversial, some parents delay kindergarten entrance with the hope that their child will be smarter, stronger and faster by being older than their classmates. Some parents even see it as a cheat code for getting their child into Harvard. But this plan can backfire. One study in the Economics of Education Review shows that kids who were redshirted outperformed peers in their early school years and then, by eighth grade, were performing on the same level as their younger school peers, indicating a negation of any early advantage. 

Parents weigh in on redshirting

Redshirting can provide the expected results for many parents.

“I waited with my son (who has a late-September birthday). I’m glad I did it,” says Kerrie Hinch, a mom in Michigan. “He started kindergarten confident, smart, athletic and social in a way he just wasn’t the year before.”

Another mom, Lindsay Crapo of Idaho, says holding off a year on kindergarten gave her kids extra time to reach the milestones they needed to be successful. Her children have a variety of special needs and waiting was right for each child for different reasons, including, according to Crapo, academics, peer relations, ESL (English as a Second Language), disabilities and social development.

On the other hand, Richelle Healy of Colorado says she felt some pressure to redshirt her child because of her daughter’s birthdate, but she is glad she didn’t. Her daughter was gifted and typically ahead of her classmates academically, she says, so delaying that a year would have made the gap even greater.

What teachers think about redshirting

Holding children back presents challenges for teachers, says Dana Vala of Sunrise Preschools. They are then starting the year with a range of kindergartners — some of whom are still 4 years old while others have already turned 6. This presents a wide developmental age range for teachers to accommodate.

Elementary school teacher Andrea Judisch agrees, “A child with an August birthday often isn’t on the same developmental level as a student with a January birthday when they are both starting school in September.” When kindergarten has been pushed back a full year for some students, it creates even more challenges for teachers to meet the needs of each student.

Many teachers admit that the older students do seem to perform better than the younger ones in the class. “My experience as a teacher in both early childhood and lower elementary grades shouts that if you can wait, you should. It is usually the younger kids in the class that are the ones struggling,” says Sharon Canaday of Tennessee.

How does redshirting affect educational equity?

Some have concerns, however, over the fairness of the practice of redshirting because research suggests that kids with later birthdates coming from poorer neighborhoods are less likely to be held back than those with later birthdates who come from wealthier neighborhoods. As reported in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that approximately 6% of kindergartners are redshirted in the United States.

However, that number varies greatly by neighborhood. It is as low as 2% in poor areas and as high as 27% in wealthy areas. Johnson’s take is that if parents “stand up to a broken educational system,” less parents will feel the need to redshirt. “If enough parents rebel, the system will have to change,” he says.

Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, freelance writer and blogger. She worked in early childhood education for decades.