Parent Pathways: Should parents ‘red-shirt’ their soon-to-be kindergartner?

07/07/2014 12:00 AM

08/25/2014 10:47 PM

Many 5-year-olds will make their way to kindergarten this year, sharing circle time with their peers and learning to read and write. But others, particularly those with summer birthdays, will wait another year, starting kindergarten at age 6. It’s all up to their parents.

The practice, known as “red-shirting” (a term borrowed from college sports when a freshman is benched so the team can utilize him or her for a fifth year) is often used to give kids extra time to learn or grow. To be a bit ahead of the game when they do start school.

Red-shirting kindergartners is increasing in the United States. Since the late 1960s, the number of 6-year-olds in first grade dropped 9 percent, according to a 2008 Harvard study.

Cary mom Jenna Moyer red-shirted her son Steven last year, and he’ll start kindergarten at age 6 in a few weeks.

“He was in the third percentile for weight and the 15th for height,” Moyer said. “His speech was great. He’s a smart kid; he loves science and is interested in learning. But he’s just small, and I was nervous that he would be picked on. He also needed to mature a little bit in the way he interacted.”

Moyer said the extra year in a pre-K program helped prepare Steven for what kindergarten will require.

“My only fear is that because he’ll be the oldest, he’ll be the first to get his driver’s license, so then is he going to get himself in trouble if he’s the first? I hadn’t really thought of that,” Moyer said.

There don’t seem to be many cons to red-shirting a kindergartner, although some research says the advantage peters out by eighth grade. But there can be disadvantages for kids who aren’t red-shirted.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows a relationship between red-shirting and socio-economic status.

For families who earn income in the bottom 20 percent, red-shirting is cost-prohibitive. Good preschools cost money, after all – about $7,800 a year. Public school is free.

The data shows parents who earn in the top 20 percent red-shirt most often.

Delaying the start of school may be elevating test scores as well, since 6-year-olds tend to test better than 5-year-olds.

But as kindergarten becomes more academic, the disparity among students can grow while teachers try to figure out how to catch up younger children while still engaging older students.

I considered red-shirting my son six years ago, when he was 5. He had a May birthday, but also a speech delay that I thought might hinder him. I inquired about it and learned that kids receiving special services for speech, OT, autism and more under Individualized Education Plans would have to forgo services for that year.

That was the last thing we wanted, so we moved forward and he did just fine. But I can see the benefits of red-shirting. If he was entering fifth grade this year instead of sixth, I wouldn’t be a bit worried. I think sixth grade will be a challenge.

I know a lot of parents who red-shirted and are glad they did.

Cary mom Kelley Simpson, who works as an administrator at Apex High School, said fellow educators told her to wait until her oldest was 6 to begin kindergarten.

“I was completely against this notion at first,” she said. “Financially, it seemed silly to pay for another year of day care. Intellectually, I felt like he was right on track with his peers. There just didn't seem to be any value in holding him back. So much of our society is to push ahead.”

But Simpson decided to delay his entry into kindergarten. Her son is now 17, and she’s glad she’s not sending him off to college this year.

“Even with that extra year, he often seemed to be less mature than his peers,” Simpson said. “I shudder to think what it would have been like if he had been a year younger.

“For him, the physical benefits have been a great strength and confidence builder,” she continued. “He has typically been one of the tallest and most athletic in his class. I’m not sure he would have had the same benefits had he been a grade level ahead.”

In the end, parents know what’s right for their children, but there’s no doubt red-shirting will make for some interesting kindergarten classes in the years to come.

It seems the teachers have the real challenge.

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