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Harmful : Some people are just gaming the system

By Kate Rosin

My friend, Amy, needed some advice. It was April and her daughter, Emma, had just turned four. Emma’s preschool teacher had assured Amy and her husband that their extremely bright little girl was more than ready to start kindergarten in the fall, but Amy wasn’t sure if early enrollment was the right decision. She wanted my opinion.

“Don’t do it,” I told her firmly.

“Why?” she asked. “Do you think she’s too young?”

“She is young, especially when you consider the age of the kids she’d be in classes with for the next 13 years.”

“I know she would definitely be one of the youngest kids in her grade,” Amy acknowledged. “But she’s pretty mature for her age.”

“Even so, you have to be aware that if you enroll Emma in kindergarten this year, some of the kids in her class could be up to two years older.”

“Wait, what?”

“Redshirting,” I told her. “It screws up everything.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, academic redshirting is the parental practice of postponing kindergarten for a child who meets the enrollment age requirement and, technically, could begin attending school. (The term “redshirt” originated in collegiate athletics as a shorthand designation for an athlete whose participation in a sport has been intentionally delayed in order to extend the length of his or her eligibility period, providing the player with more time to develop skills and mature.)

Academic redshirting is, without a doubt, the right and sensible choice for children who are genuinely not ready to begin kindergarten. A kid who has a late birthday or a disability, or lacks the emotional maturity to handle the more structured kindergarten environment, should absolutely wait another year. These are the very reasons – the very legitimate reasons – parents have always had the option to hold their kids back.

Like most policies that emerge from legitimate reasons, however, the option to delay kindergarten has been distorted and abused by parents who are essentially gaming the system. Instead of basing their enrollment decisions on valid developmental concerns, some parents choose to postpone the start of kindergarten for their children – even if they are physically, emotionally, and intellectually ready – solely so they can enjoy the long-term advantages that come from being older.

What advantages do older children have in school? Like the redshirt college freshman who got an extra year to hone his skills on the football field, an academically redshirted child has more time to develop emotionally and intellectually, which may translate into greater success in the classroom. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, must then differentiate instruction even more than usual to accommodate the considerable gap between the maturity and ability levels of five- and six-year-old students.

Older, redshirted kids who had another year to grow physically also have a clear advantage on the athletic field. Physically larger boys or girls who are stronger, more intimidating, and have a better cognitive grasp of strategy often stand out in youth athletic programs at a very early age. Stronger athletes tend to get more playing time, better coaching, and more opportunities to play on elite teams.

While offering numerous advantages to some kids, redshirting, a kind of a luxury available only to families who can afford to keep their children out of kindergarten and in preschool for an additional year, puts other children at a distinct disadvantage. Children from low-income families who enter kindergarten with no previous school experience, for example, must then compete with redshirt students who have at least 12 months of additional educational and cultural experiences.

Still don’t think redshirting is a big deal? Think ahead to the vulnerable 14-year-old girl in class with 16-year-old boys, or the underprivileged high school athlete who needs an athletic scholarship to attend college, or the college graduate losing a year’s worth of earned income to a decision his parents made when he was five. Academic redshirting skews the American education system, increases disparity among students, and alters outcomes for all kids – redshirted or not – with consequences that can extend well beyond the kindergarten classroom.

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Helpful : Some kids really need that extra year

by: Tina Donvito

My birthday is November 19. When I entered school, I made it in just before the cutoff of December 1. I excelled academically, but socially I struggled. It wasn’t until I had my own child and read about the debate over “redshirting,” the practice of holding an of-age child back for a real or perceived advantage in school, that I realized my age might have had something to do with it.

As I came to understand how the timing of your birthday can affect your school experience, I realized the crippling shyness and social awkwardness I faced in my youth might just have been immaturity, because I was one of the youngest students in the class.

My son’s birthday is August 26, with a school cutoff of October 1. As if the lateness of his birthday wasn’t enough of a concern (especially since boys notoriously mature slower than girls), Sam is also a small guy, usually coming in at the 10th percentile. But he has a strong personality, so I was less worried about him being bullied for his physical size and more worried about how he always seemed to meet his milestones late. A hearing check at the request of our early intervention team revealed that he does, in fact, have hearing loss, which accounted for his delayed speech.

As a child with a disability, my son might be the exception to the redshirting rule, even among those who are staunchly opposed to it. (Children with disabilities definitely benefit from early education but the question of whether to push them forward is still up for debate.) But I sometimes wonder: What if my son just had a run-of-the-mill speech delay? What if he was, as I initially thought, just hitting his milestones at the late end of normal? What if he, with a late summer birthday, just wasn’t at the maturity level of most of his peers? Strict cutoffs do not allow for the variety of growth that even typical children experience.

I’m not advocating that every student with a late summer birthday be redshirted. If a child is ready, he or she should be sent to school. The issue of “readiness,” though, is not always black and white – if a parent wants to hold a child back, who’s to say if the reason is legitimate or if they just want their kid to be bigger and better at sports?

Cutoffs, by their very nature, are arbitrary. When I was in school, the cutoff was December 1, but my son is up against October 1. Still other districts have a September 1 cutoff. These are crucial months for young children to mature. Although redshirting could just, in effect, shift the cutoff (so now those with spring birthdays would be the youngest), parents should still have the option to do what’s in the best interest of their child.

I know there are other issues at play, but these are less about redshirting itself than reflections of larger societal problems. For instance, there is the argument that redshirting is unfair particularly to disadvantaged kids whose parents might not be able to pay for another year of preschool; so they get sent ahead while more well-off children are given the benefit of one more year to mature. This may very well be true, but I think it speaks more to the unfairness of the American education system in general rather than the individual decisions of parents.

I also heard one mother freak out that her daughter, who had a late summer birthday, would enter high school on time at 13 and potentially be in contact with 19-year-old seniors – “men,” as she called them – who had been redshirted. But this would probably be rare: Most redshirted kids would still graduate at 18. And even though that’s still a big age difference, I believe the fear is misplaced, and has to do more with rape culture and the way boys are brought up than it does with their age.

The concern for parents of younger kids entering school is also growing because of the increased pressure on kindergartners. Parents fear that if their kids don’t have all the right skills entering kindergarten, which has turned into “the new first grade,” they’ll fall behind and won’t do as well on the tests they are now required to take.

And it’s hard for teachers, too, who could potentially have a wider range of abilities to teach to, with some kids practically reading while others not even knowing the full alphabet. Again, blame the American school system for this conundrum.

Perhaps a solution, one that would doubtless require additional resources from already thinly stretched school districts, would be to evaluate children who have birthdays within a “grace period” around the cutoff, if the parents wish it. This would allow for a more individualized education plan for every student. Decisions about a child’s future should be made between parents and teachers together in good faith – neither to give a child an unfair advantage, or to deny a child the right to school readiness before being thrust into kindergarten.