This essay, which argues against academic redshirting, originally appeared as part of the “Debate Club” series in the digital publication Parent.co.
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.”
“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.