(This story is adapted from an article that originally ran in The Conversation on June 24, 2022, written by Gregory Fabiano, Professor of Psychology at Florida International University.)

Parents can feel conflicted about sending their child off to kindergarten when the child ends up being the youngest in the class. While the cutoff for kindergarten enrollment differs across the United States, it’s most common that a child can enroll if he or she turns 5 on or before Sept. 1. There are legitimate concerns about being the youngest in kindergarten — the child born on Aug. 31 instead of Jan. 31. But there are also ways to compensate that can help ensure that over the course of their educational life, they will will turn out no worse than their older peers.

There is evidence showing that children who are relatively young for kindergarten are at increased risk for doing worse in school, being held back a grade, and having lower social-emotional skills. Teachers are also more likely to rate the youngest kindergartners as exhibiting symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and possibly needing medication for it.

Moreover, older kids are often seen by adults as more advanced because adults tend to compare children to one another. The older child may appear better behaved than the younger one, especially as kindergarten classrooms focus more on academics and offer less time to play. Together these differences are called the “relative age effect.”

Because of this, some families choose to delay their child’s entry into kindergarten – a practice known as “redshirting”. The term is taken from the college athletic practice of taking a player off a team for a year so that they can improve their skills and still have four full playing years. Redshirting in kindergarten has risen in popularity, particularly for those parents who can afford it. But that isn’t an option if Mom or Dad have to return to work. For their kids, it’s off to kindergarten as soon as possible. I am a clinical psychologist who studies how to best support children in school settings, particularly those at risk for behavioral challenges like ADHD. Here are five ways families can help support their kindergartners, especially those who are younger than their classmates.

  1. Learning opportunities

    In general, older students have had more time to learn academic skills. To help younger kindergartners catch up with their older classroom peers, families can offer additional learning experiences, such as engaging the children in more conversations and shared book reading. This can be started during the preschool years and continue throughout kindergarten.

  2. Be positive

    Parents and educators should focus as much as possible on encouraging and praising the positive performance of younger children in the classroom. If the feedback is mostly negative — in which the younger child is always told to “hurry up,” “pay attention,” “do it the right way,” and all other variations of directives that include words like “no,” “don’t” or “stop” — they may eventually shut down and stop trying to follow instructions. To combat this, parents should focus on emphasizing all the things the child is doing right, rather than wrong. A good goal is to be mindful of directing at least three positive statements to the child for every correction or redirection.

  3. Set tailored goals

    Parents of younger children can meet with their child’s teacher early in the school year to discuss individual goals for the child. They should discuss the child’s current strengths and skills, as well as areas in need of growth. The adults can establish reasonable, achievable goals for the child each week or month. That can help offset comparisons with other children that may mask individual progress.

  4. Track your kindergartner’s progress

    To follow up with the goals set at the beginning of the year, a daily or weekly check-in on behavioral or academic progress can help parents and teachers work together. Waiting until the end of the school year is too long and leaves no time to change course if goals need to be modified. Frequent check-ins also provide opportunities to reward and praise the child for success.

  5. Keep perspective about being the youngest in kindergarten

    Educators and parents may find it useful to remember that kindergarten is only one year of what is almost two decades of education for children on a college track — and age differences matter less and less in academic performance as children get older.

Finally, remember that no matter the age of your kindergartner, the size of the class and the experience of the teacher can also make a big difference. Research shows that students in smaller kindergarten classes are more likely to go to college than students from larger classes. And by age 27, students who had more experienced kindergarten teachers were earning more money than their peers who had less-experienced teachers in kindergarten. A good kindergarten experience will set kids up for success in school and into adulthood.