I applaud the wisdom of parents (my own children included) who pay close attention to their child’s development and make the decision for when they should enter kindergarten based on an assessment of not only the academic, but the social and emotional readiness of that individual child. This is often a great gift to the long-term happiness and wellbeing of a child in school. This practice does contain, however, the potential for unintended consequences that may sabotage the sincere efforts made to help the child succeed.
I have been an educator observing and participating in the private school admissions process for almost 40 years, I am concerned about the impact of “Redshirting” (keeping a student in preschool an extra year) on the kindergarten curriculum and consequently, that of every other grade. It can go something like this: parents and school officials make individual decisions that skew the age of the kindergarten class toward 5½ to 6 years of age instead of late 4s and 5s. Ambitious teachers see and act on the ability to move this new age group along the curricular continuum more quickly that they might with a younger group. Voila! Kindergarten becomes the new 1st grade!
Most private elementary schools, and many public school districts around the country, have added a new entry-level class to their program – Jr. K, DK, Pre-K – it goes by many names. This is the place where children are prepared to begin the process of being in school and taking on the challenges of whatever style curriculum the school offers. This is not restricted to any particular style of school. The progressive schools are as likely to do this as the more traditional academic schools. In this first year children learn to follow a routine, listen to instruction, take turns, help your friend, and work together. Hmm…sound familiar? Everything we learned in kindergarten is now what children are learning in Pre-K.
While this works well for many children, and it makes schools feel good because their students seem so accomplished in earlier grades, there are some unintended consequences of this shift. For those who are not older but are fully ready to handle the program of kindergarten, there may be as much as 18 months difference between the age of that child and the oldest child in the class. There can be huge size differences between the children in the same class. Most importantly, if the curriculum continues to accelerate, there will come a time when it does not fit the development of the students and the whole purpose is defeated.
In the last few years of my tenure as Head Of The Lower School of an independent school in Virginia, I too established a wonderful Pre-K program. We rehabbed a donated construction modular office into a colorful “Cottage” complete with deck and ramp. The younger siblings of our enrolled students flocked to the program, delighted in the options offered: ½ day, full-day, extended day. We could really pay attention to what each 4-year-old needed and even tailor that need throughout the year. Several students started the year as ½ day and graduated to full day students around January of their Pre-K year.
In the second year of the program I needed to hire a new teacher for the class. Guess what? I hired a talented veteran kindergarten teacher from a nearby public school district. She was delighted to be in an environment that allowed her to attend to the developmental needs of her students and not primarily to the concerns of state tests and benchmarks. I was happy that she understood both where the students were currently, as well as where they needed to go to be ready for our more academically focused kindergarten program.
Somewhere in all of this is a warning – be careful what you wish for! While I agree completely with the need to make sure your child is ready for the kindergarten experience, it is equally important that the schools you are applying to that are accelerating their curriculum as a result of having classes with slightly older students be mindful of the potential pitfalls of this practice over time. Schools must adjust their programs to fit the new profile of their students – larger age spans and greater differences in size and capability perhaps. This can be done well if the school and its teachers resist the temptation to simply accelerate their program and truly reframe their curriculum and methodologies to fit the needs of the students they have. If this is accomplished, students can have the best of all possible worlds.
Anne Simon is co-author of “Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles”. She is the former Head of Wildwood Elementary School and the former Dean of the Crossroads Middle School.
11 thoughts to “The Paradox Of Redshirting: A View From Inside The Classroom by Anne Simon”
It's so refreshing to hear such a well-thought out, balanced and informed article from a true expert. I hope not only parents but ADs from LA private schools take note of these wise observations. More posts like these please!
"Most importantly, if the curriculum continues to accelerate, there will come a time when it does not fit the development of the students and the whole purpose is defeated."
Wow, THANK YOU. We really struggled with this decision with our July birthday son- his preschool said he was definitely ready for Kindergarten(he had attended their toddler program at 2, preschool at 3 and Pre-K at 4- my point being- I trusted that the school really 'knew' him and his abilities) but when we started applying to private schools he was basically 'not eligible' at several schools before they even interviewed him and despite the recommendation from his preschool. Yes, he met the age requirements and cut-off dates, but we were repeatedly told that because he was a boy he needed to wait until he was 6 to enter. I supposed that those schools knew their program, maybe it was for 6 year olds, but why then call it K? The thing that really astonished me was that these schools had no program to suggest in the interim- one school suggested he just repeat Pre-K although they had no reply when I questioned why he would repeat a year of Pre-K when he had already completed the program with flying colors. I felt that we were basically being forced to put him on hold for an entire year of his life just because of his birthdate, I would have understood 100% if anyone who had evaluated him (or had even met him!) had decided that he wasn't ready. One AD at a top school got very irritated with me during our discussion of the matter and snapped "Well how bad will YOU feel if in middle school he gets a B in math when he could have gotten an A if you held him back?" I knew at that moment the school wasn't for us because my answer was that I wouldn't feel bad, I'd be proud if he had worked to his full potential to earn that B! (Note to LA parents- not every kid gets an A every time.)
I did a lot of research on the subject. There are many people that support redshirting but it is really important to know that there are just as many who caution against the possible downsides (which can include behavioral problems in redshirted kids in later grades, the big difference in age can create awkward situations later on- think puberty, and a study that found that the perceived advantage of holding back Kindergartners disappears by third grade). Most importantly, if the curriculum and the child's developmental stage are not a match, the results are not optimal.
After a great deal of discussion, research and soul-searching I knew that the right thing for my son was to send him to Kindergarten. We crossed off our list the schools who were exclusively looking for 6 year olds in K and found a private school that did not prioritize age over the individual student's actual readiness for K. I am happy with our decision.
I think LA is a really difficult place for parents, there is an incredible amount of pressure to do the 'right' thing and give your child every perceived advantage. It can make it very difficult to keep focused on your individual child and his needs.
Thank you so much for addressing this feeling I have had regarding Red-shirting since I first heard about it when my son was entering preschool.
I understand and support the idea for those children that have cut-off "cusp" birthdays (especially for boys) because socially, they would struggle in Kindergarten. What I don't support are parents who are opting to hold their children back so that "they have a greater chance at success". I feel like it's upsetting the apple cart and hurting those children that are entering Kindergarten when they should be.
My son is one of those children born in late Spring (May) and whom I felt was ready for Kindergarten at the age of 5. Much to my dismay, my child is now the 2nd youngest in the class and constantly feeling like he isn't "as smart" as many of the other children in his class (some of which turned 7 before the school year was out).
I try to remind him that he should never compare herself to others and that he should be happy with where he is (reading fluently, navigating the social pitfalls fairly well, holding his own in sports, enthusiastic and eager to learn – especially since his teachers are pleased about where he is).
As we all know, it's hard not to compare your abilities to those around you and it's even harder for a (now) 6yr old to understand that there is a HUGE difference between 6 and 7 year old's. My hope is that as time goes on, the differences will be less glaring between all the children and that my child will feel greater equality to his classmates for the remainder of his elementary school years (although I think this problem will reappear when his classmates are all 16 and going to parties and he has yet to turn 15 so is stuck at home and not feeling very "cool" – but that's another discussion altogether!).
Thank you for bringing it up. Usually the discussion about Red-shirting is in support of it and touting the great benefits to that individual child, but the overall effects on the entire system are often overlooked.
I don't know. I'm hoping for the best. Only time will tell what happens with this interesting social experiment the schools have begun.
Hi Everyone, interesting comments! Anon 12:28, I understand what it's like to have the youngest (or one of the youngest) in the class. My son has a July birthday and is one of the youngest. There are kids in his class more than a year older than him. And, if a kid has to repeat a grade, they can be 18 months older than my son. But, we have not had any problems, luckily. I do gently remind the teachers sometimes that my son is the youngest so they don't lose perspective. I've also noticed that some of the oldest kids in his class are not always the most mature of the group. However, the older kids are obviously bigger and sometimes more dominant. So far, my son has been fine. But, I do understand the issues you raise and I hope your school will be able meet the needs of all the kids in your son's class.
I could have written the 8/12 12:28 post. We started our kids on time only to discover the 18 month disparity in ages. This manifests itself in the esteem of the kids who are the right age at the expense of the vanity red-shirters. Sure those kid feel great that they are excelling in Kindergarten, but they should be in first grade, after all.
I understand that there are kids with developmental issues that necessitate a year of development. I also understand that summer birthdays, particularly in boys, can be tricky. It is the January-May birthdays where I am having a really hard time understanding why parents and administrators encourage the action of holding their kids back (under the guise of giving the gift of time).
Someone has to be the youngest in a class. If the stated cut-offs are September 1, but the reality is May 1, then why not change that cut-off date so people have a clear understanding of the requirements and ranges?
Out of curiosity, do LA private schools have to comply with the state law that starting 2012 will gradually move the cut-off date forward so all children starting kindergarten will have to be five by September 1st?
Hi Sarah, Anne Simon says, private schools set their own policies. They have watched the public school deadlines for years and some have adjusted their cutoff just a little later to pick up some students on the edge. And, I'd add that if LAUSD changes their cutoff dates to try to enroll older students, it can have a big impact on low-income families who then have to pay for an extra year of preschool or daycare.
This is a fantastic and balanced post. What's most interesting to me is that most of the comments touch on the fact of the age spread in the classroom being the biggest problem. As one who did not hold my child back, I have also found this to be the case. My daughter was 4 when she started K (the LA Unified cut-off being Dec. 4) because she was ready in every possible way. She has excelled and I have no regrets. In public school she was about in the middle age-wise.
When she transferred to private school, however, we found they followed a policy where holding kids back was the norm, some of them being more than a year older than my daughter. Luckily, she considers it a badge of honor to be so much younger and still doing so well, and there haven't really been any issues now that she's a teenager.
I believe that some kids aren't ready to start at five and should wait. However, doing it as a matter of course, thinking it will somehow guarantee success regardless of the child's stage of development, can cause problems, too.
We live in Palo Alto, CA and the public school district has a Young Five’s program. My daughter is an October birthday and we redshirted her and placed her in the Y5 program. We only did it because we were worried about the 18 month spread issue. We had no other reason as she would do fine, academically, in Kindergarten. I suppose time will tell if we did the right thing.
Hi Allison, I also redshirted my daughter, but not my son so I’ve seen both sides of the issue now that they are in 3rd and 5th grade. Definitely pros and cons to both scenarios, but so far, so good for us. The 18 month age difference is significant, especially if the older kids are bullies or have other issues. Thanks for the comment!