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When should kids start kindergarten?

Redshirting kindergarten - holding kids back to start school later - is increasingly popular. But does redshirting help, or hurt, a child? The research may surprise you.

By Jessica Kelmon

This fall, four-year-old Luke will be starting kindergarten in Centerville, OH. He’ll be one of the youngest in his class — turning five just before the school year begins — and his mother is concerned.

Nationwide, the starting age for kindergarten varies widely. In states like Connecticut and California, you can easily find a four-and-a-half-year-old and a six-and-a-half-year-old in the same kindergarten class. That’s exactly what worries Luke’s mom, Deb Nelson, who has seen the difference just a few months can make, whether at home with her three sons ages 6, 4, and 3 or at school with the kids in her older son’s kindergarten class. Some kids are ready to read and write; others have trouble sitting still and paying attention. Being younger is particularly problematic as kindergarten becomes increasingly academic.

While there’s no statistical evidence that delaying kindergarten is on the rise, anecdotally it appears that more and more parents are doing it. But will this benefit or hurt children in the long run? Educators and parents are wondering just that, as they weigh the potential risks of starting kids in kindergarten when they're either much younger or much older than other kids in their class.

Why redshirt?

Nelson’s not only worried about kindergarten. "It’s junior high," she says. "I don’t want him to be 11 when everyone else is turning 12 and have him be practically a year behind everybody in sixth or seventh grade." Both concerns — for a child’s success in kindergarten and through adolescence — are driving forces behind the popular practice of "redshirting," or delaying a child’s kindergarten entry by a year or more. (The term is borrowed from collegiate sports, where athletes will practice with the team for the first year, but sit out competition while they get bigger, stronger, and more competitive.)

Parents typically hold a child back because they feel he isn’t ready — cognitively, socially, or emotionally. Others may want to give their child a leg up, on the assumption that being older will make him more advanced. "In a lot of circles, it’s become the fad," says Gary Painter, an associate professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development, who authored a paper on redshirting. "Particularly in upper-middle-class circles where parents want to give their children every advantage, and want their kids to be ahead of their peers."

Does redshirting make a difference?

Painter’s work is based on a longitudinal study that looked at academic and social outcomes of delayed kindergarten entry. He followed children starting at age four or five through age 25 or 26. Incredibly, he found no academic or social benefit to redshirting (The one exception? Varsity football.) In fact, he found a small benefit to being younger in terms of slightly higher college attendance rates. But is Painter’s data, which is necessarily old (his subjects are now all in their thirties), on target? "There’s other research out there from here and abroad that finds older kids do slightly better than younger kids while they’re in school," Painter says. "We need to keep a close eye on it."

Overall, research on has found mostly unfavorable results for being older than your grade-level peers, including academic achievement that disappears in later grades and an increase in social and behavioral problems in adolescence, when being older (or different in any way) can create problems. But much of this data is old, and, in many cases, linked to studies on grade retention, which is likely more of a social stigma for a child than starting kindergarten later.

Mixed results

A recent Canadian study suggests that redshirting can have positive academic outcomes, including a reduced chance the child will repeat the third grade and improved math and reading scores in tenth grade. According to this study by the NBER, the effects are highest for boys (who are more often redshirted) and low-income students. Additionally, the researchers’ estimates suggest that not only is delayed kindergarten better, but starting too early may have negative consequences for kids.

Given these mixed findings, redshirting clearly needs more study, especially since the average age of kindergartners is on the rise. In the past 35 years, scores of states have raised their kindergarten cut-off dates. In 1975, only nine states required that kids be five when they start kindergarten. By 2010, 37 states had that requirement, with more states following suit (California will be there by fall 2014).

Next page: Redshirting kindergarten— Ready or not

is an associate editor at

Comments from readers

"I have taught elementary school for 12 years, most of which has been at the 5th/6th grade level. I can see within the first couple of weeks who the children are that were born in October versus those that were born in May. The place that the difference in age really shows is when the students start to get into a more formal algebraic approach in math. The younger students simply struggle more with the abstract concepts. So, when the time came to enroll my son, whose birthday is just a few days from the cutoff, into preschool, we waited until he was a year older. He may have been ready academically, but socially he was not. But, when we tried to enroll him in Chicago Public Schools, they told us that he would have to skip kindergarten, and go to his "age-appropriate" grade, which was first grade. We sent him to kindergarten at a private school, and then tried to enroll him again in our neighborhood school. Again, Chicago Public School officials informed us that he would be pl! aced in second grade, skipping first grade. No, really, that is the policy. It is downright frustrating to have no say in my child's schooling. For those people in districts around the country, fight for the parents' right to choose when to send their children to school. "
"It makes sense to me that children who start later (and graduate later) will be less likely to pursue advanced degrees because they'll feel like time is getting away from them and they need to start their career and/or start a family. It just seems to me that you're taking a year from their lives. I would like to see a study where it examines whether kids who were held back are more or less likely than other children to pursue careers that require a lot of schooling like being a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or therapist. I would also like to see whether kids who were held back and have some difficulty in college either academically, financially or both which delays their graduation are more likely to drop out as they feel they're getting too old to be a "college kid" than their younger peers in a similar situation. "
"Wait another year! There is no rush and they are only babies for so long. My son started K early; at 4 years old & did not turn 5 until late December. I wanted to wait but he was so smart and preK said he was ready to go. As each year went by my sons grades slowly went down. We moved to another state where middle school started in 6th grade & against my better judgement I put my 10 year old baby on a bus with 14 year olds. He was still very much into toys and not at all ready for the middle school scene. In 7th grade he was one I the smallest and at 11 still a little kid. He ended up repeating the 7th grade. I told myself and him that it was for the best, he could use the extra year to grow and mature. He did well and now in 8th grade he is not doing week. Staying back really lowered his self esteem. He is struggling now just to pass. My advice is WAIT ANOTHER YEAR! Even if my son were doing very well in school, I would feel the same way. My son is on the same maturity level! as the kids in his class now but he really struggled with whether he was 'suppose' to still be playing and being a kid! What's the rush?? "
"My son is the youngest in his class - but he is also one of the smartest - so holding him back would have helped him in sports but hurt him academically because boredom is a problem. I don't regret this choice. I find that parents who "red shirt" do so to get their kids into the "gifted program". Its a strategic move to to have a better looking college application (I think). Aptitude, IQ and drive are what matter in the long run ... Honestly, I lose some respect for the parents who do this when its not necessary beyond bragging rights - as they are only fooling themselves. "
"In Asian countries, kids start school at 3 years old, and by five are already competivitve and loaded with exams. In the USA, we have to bring people from these countries because we cannot find the internal talent to fill roles of engineers and doctors. Our student lack the drive and motivation to compete and be top notch. They are fearless, and comfortable. Every mom wants to protect their child but protecting them from the future of our world is not in their best interest. We are outsourcing most of our skilled jobs to countries where competition is applauded over 'self esteem'. I am sad to see the American trend continue despite clear indicators that our culture is getting its hiney kicked. I would say if you can support your child well in to adulthood, protect them from the real world as long as you can and hold them back from going to school. Heck, why not just enroll them in summer classes so that they have time to 'find themselves' the rest of the year? "
"Four and a half and in K? Much too early, if you ask me. Unless the child is mega gifted, he or she should be about to turn 5 when they start K. "
"I'd like to know more about the "young fives program" mentioned in this article & if there are preschools in the silicon valley/San Jose CA area that offer it or something similar? "
"When I was facing this decision my son was testing into a accelerated private school. Having an end of summer birthday I had the choice of having him be the youngest or waiting a year and having him be one of the oldest. Holding him until the next year was the best decision of my life. I see the kids in his class that are the youngest. They have trouble carrying the work load, staying as focused and with a couple exceptions making the same grades as the ones a year older. It really paid off with my younger son who is not as focused and driven in academics as his older brother. Sports are also a plus.just that one year of coordination and skill has put them to the top. Granted...genetics play a part....Most of my sons friends have waited the extra year and in 6the grade at this particular school test out at least 2 years ahead. My son just tested on a 9th grade level in some subjects and above in others in the John Hopkins test. Big plus for college testing! Do we n! eed out kids 3 years mine it works... It is the extra gift of a year that I gave him at 5 that has made all the difference at 12 now. IT is not for everyone. There is a child 1 yr younger that is so smart and driven and smart at our school that holding him back would have been useless. Just have to go with your gut for your particular child. "
"My son started kindergarten right after he turned 5. There were several kids in his class with close birthdays. Some of them are thriving (now in 1st grade) and others are struggling. Children are individuals, and their parents know them best. My son is doing great -- he learned to read on his own and was reading well by the time he finished kindergarten. If I had "red shirted" him that would have been awful for him since he would be even more bored in school than he is. There has to be a way to engage those that are academically advanced and challenge them while meeting the needs of those that are struggling. If a child is struggling to meet basic kindergarten requirements, then red-shirting them may be a good idea. On the other hand, kids that already exceed the end of the year kindergarten requirements need to be academically challenged in kindergarten (and forward) as much as the child who is average. "
"This issue comes up in the GreatSchools parent community more often than any other subject. It's compounded by the fact that states have different dates, so moving can get dicey. Family economics get entered into it too--pay for another year of preschool or go to kindergarten? And it's not just a few months spread when you have families holding back July babies and people sending November and December babies to school--that's a full 18-month difference! Bottom line, only the parents can make the right decision. And it shouldn't really be made for finances or sports--but whether the child is academically ready to sit through six hours a day of instruction. Because in the end what we all really want is successful kids, right? "
"As a former K teacher, I can tell you that K IS the "new first grade"....and I don't like it. The academic standards have been raised -- a lot -- but children are still pretty much the same as they always have been developmentally, and I found that many of my students were not ready on numerous levels for such a program -- many of them could not hold a pencil correctly, yet they were expected to write, etc. Even those who were successful in mastering the skills often felt that school was "boring" because there was little time for music, art, or dramatic play with so much focus on academic standards. I think if you have any doubts at all about whether or not your child can handle such a curriculum, it would be best to err on the side of caution and wait a year. At my school, the problem was made worse by having a policy that discouraged children from repeating grade levels, so those students who fared poorly in K went on to first grade ill-prepared. "
"I started kindergarten when I was barely 5... in 4rth grade, I had a huge growth spurt. I was taller, so to all your parents that say your going t be small, take that! I am still the top of my class, highest GPA and I'm a year younger than most ever since 1st grade and now in 8th. So there!! "
"I can fully attest to the beni's of "redshirting", as my parents did not offer me that opportunity. I turned 6 on my birthday, which was also the first day of 1st grade...Not Fun! I was always one of the smallest & youngest kids in my class & it went downhill from there. Bullies, social pressures, keep in mind most of the kids were a full year older than me. Do you really want your just turning 14 yr. old in high school with 18/19 yr. old boys?? Redshirting is not just for boys, as it affected my entire academic & social life, as well as college & future earning potential. "
"If your child seems ready, holding them back is not the answer. I went to school with lots of smart, older kids who were bored, bored, bored. Being a little challenged is a good thing. I was always the youngest in all of my classes. Having a summer birthday, I started kindergarten having just turned 5. I then did first and second grade in one year, which resulted in graduating high school at 16, and graduating college at 20. Both socially and academically, I almost never felt out of place with my peers, even those who were almost two years older than me. The only exceptions: being behind the curve in getting my "curves" compared to other girls in junior high, and being the only UCLA senior I knew who didn't have a valid I.D. to get into a bar! My husband was also a younger student who skipped a grade early on. We have no reservations whatsoever about starting our summer birthday son in Kindergarten as a "young five"...he seems more than ready! "
"Do not hold your child back if he or she is ready. I have always been they youngest in all of my classes. I graduated highschool at 17 years old, and because of my choice I left for Marine Corps boot camp. I turned 18 IN Boot camp. I was more mature than my friends who were older than I . "
"DO NOT RED SHIRT if your child is ready. Held back my son who was both academically and socially ready and he was BORED!!! If your child NEEDS the extra year, give it to him, if not just send him at 5!!! "
"My first son's birthday is right before cut-off. He's very social and passed the school's assessment (private school)-- and no one recommended holding him back. Academically he did fine and then in the spring I could see a difference. First, due to other redshirters, there was a 16-month age span in his class, with my son being the youngest. And there was the maturity issue. I decided to hold him back & do the other K class (there are 2 classes per grade). This teacher is more rigorous and it's been an excellent fit! So I tried not to redshirt but decided differently. I found not only is about your son, but the age range of the class. At my school, 6 year old boys are the norm. So son 2 has a May birthday so I assumed he's be young, but K at 5. Come to find out, I know about 8 kids with a May birthday, half waited, half didn't. Sure it's about the kid but then I already know of classmates who aren't sending their kids at 5 for his class so already if he goes at 5, there will be another kid who's 6 with a may birthday- as in my son will be 12 months younger than the oldest kid & this is what matters as well. By contrast, in my older son's K class, the oldest kid has a July bday (started at 6) and the youngest kid has a May bday so there is only a 10-month age range. So my advice to people is don't have Spring and Summer babies ;)"
"My son was born in July, he was old enough to start kindergarten at the age of 5. Most of his class mates were getting ready to turn 6. My son was academically ready to start school. As a matter of fact his has always been on the A honor roll with no real problems. It was not until the end of last year did I start to see a problem. He was then in 4th grade making A and high B's. I started thinking about the end results in my child's education, he was going to be 17 when he graduated! That was going to put him in to college just after he turns 18. College is hard enough not to put the added pressure of placing your child into college that just turn of legal age. I spoke with his 4th grade teacher and she agreed to keep him in 4th grade an additional year. She has given him advance studies in English, math and science. He just complete the 4th grade a second time it did not phase him one way or the other that I held him back. I'm glad that I did it and not waited un! til he got to be in junior high or high school. He is still working at an academical level that he is capable of doing and I will not be throwing out into a hard, curl world too early."
"In attempt to hold my child back, (he turned 5 a month before school started) I put him in a neighboring school district's every-other day Kindergarten program thinking that I did not want him to commit 'social suicide' with the possibility of him needing to repeat K at our school district. Mind you, I worked at his Headstart in another classroom-saw him often and spoke to his teachers often. All of this to find out that he did very well and putting him in the all-day K in my school district would not be good for him per his teacher (this was my original plan). I tried to make the best decision possible and it ended up only hurting me with my work schedule because of different Spring Breaks and other days off. Now he gets to be the 'new' kid in First Grade!! PS: Socially, he is still slightly behind others but I'm told... he's just a BOY!!"
"My son started school a year early and is now in the 8th grade about to graduate middle school and on his way to a private high school on an academic scholarship. His elementary school had what they called K-4 (or pre-K) that was designed for 4 year olds. My son turned 4 at the end of Sept so he was actually a late 3 when he started. He had several years of quality preschool and was well prepared. There have been a few times that I was a little concerned about his emotional maturity, but cognitively and socially he was advanced so I let him start. I have to say that overall, I don't think it would have been a good thing for him to wait because he is very bright and I believe that boredom would have created a host of behavior problems if he wasn't being challenged academically. He was diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten and even with that, keeping him challenged academically by him learning with his academic peers has been one of the things that led to his success. He is also a gifted football player and that would be the only area where it might have helped him to wait a year. We have heard of some families considering having their sons repeat a grade for football purposes but I don't agree with that if they are doing well academically. My son has said that he looks forward to being a young college graduate because that means that he will be established in his career sooner. So he sees it as a positive. The moral of the story I tbink is you have to know your child and you have to weigh their strengths and weaknesses and then create the best learning environment for them. Regardless of what the research said and what other people were doing, somehow I knew that was not the best course for my son. And he is doing great. (And P.S. - about the football thing, my son said even though he's a beast in football right now, his ultimate goal is not to play in the NFL, it is to be a psychologist. If he can play football along the way, he'll be happy). I was floored! How's that for a balanced perspec! tive?"