More parents are opting to delay their child’s entry into kindergarten. Years later, how do these students and their parents feel about the decision?
Listen to the full interview:
My son has an August birthday. So a few years ago, in the spring before he turned five, my husband and I had to decide whether to send him to kindergarten. Our district website told us our son would qualify for kindergarten that fall, just a few days after he turned five. The cut-off date was September 30, so any four-year-old who would turn five by that date was eligible.
But we had talked to lots of other people—both parents and teachers—and it seemed like more and more families were opting to hold off, to delay their child’s entrance into kindergarten for another year (Bassok & Reardon). At the time, we’d never heard the term “academic redshirting,” but it turns out this is what it’s often called. The term comes from college athletics, where coaches delay some athletes’ participation on a team until their sophomore year, when they are called “redshirt freshmen” and have better-developed skills. The thinking in kindergarten is that this delay will allow the child to grow physically, cognitively, and emotionally, making their eventual kindergarten experience more successful.
The practice is controversial, because it creates significant challenges for schools, who have to differentiate for a wide range of maturity and ability levels, and the results on student success are mixed. This overview of the research on redshirting shows little to no academic advantage to redshirting, and cites other research that redshirted students may have poorer academic and behavioral outcomes than non-redshirted students (Huang).
With so much conflicting information out there, many parents struggle with this decision, as we did. So when I heard about the research of Dr. Suzanne Jones, I was curious. I interviewed her for my podcast to talk more about her findings on how adolescent boys and their families feel—many years down the line—about their decision to redshirt…or not to redshirt.
In her dissertation, Academic Redshirting: Perceived Life Satisfaction of Adolescent Males, Jones looked at how boys fare in adolescence depending on whether or not their parents opted to redshirt them in kindergarten. Rather than focus on academic success, which has been covered by a number of other studies, Jones wanted to learn about her subjects’ overall life satisfaction—in other words, how happy they were—years after the decision was made.
“Both of my boys were summer birthdays,” Jones explained, “and I was having to make that decision. This was the early years of my doctoral studies, and I latched on to this topic while doing my own research.”
“The reason that most parents who struggle with the decision end up going ahead and sending their child (is) because they do seem ready. And the preschool teacher says that they’re ready, and of course, the district that they’re going in to, if they meet with those teachers, have to say that they’re ready, they’re not supposed to legally ask a student to redshirt. So therefore parents think: ‘OK, they’re ready, I’ll send them on.’ So that’s why my research was done with adolescent boys. I wanted to catch them at a different time, after those early years had already come and gone.”
Jones evaluated 55 families with adolescent boys who had summer birthdays. Thirty of these families had chosen to redshirt their sons back in kindergarten, and 25 opted not to. Using a tool called the Multidimensional Students’ Life Satisfaction Scale, Jones measured each child’s general satisfaction with life as adolescents. After administering the scale, Jones interviewed 20 of the families to collect more in-depth insights. Ten of these were redshirt families, and ten were not.
On the Life Satisfaction Scale, redshirted students showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than those who had not been redshirted. The feelings described by subjects in the interviews offered substantial evidence that redshirted students were happy with the decision their parents made, and those who were not wished they had been. Although this was a small study, it suggests that parents who opt to redshirt their children may be setting them up for a generally more satisfying life later on.
“The non-redshirted students went on and on with their responses,” Jones says. “It went from, of course, there’s the bigger, stronger, more mature aspect they wished they had. The locker-room kind of atmosphere. Some of them mentioned girls—the older kids got the girls. Some of them mentioned, ‘I’m always trying to keep up.'” When talking with the redshirted boys, “They loved it, liked being older, no problem with it, can’t think of any way it’s hurt, it’s only helped.”
Interviews with parents offered similar insights: “The parents of the redshirted students all said they would do it again, no questions asked,” Jones reports. “When I asked: If you had another child today born in the summer, what would you do? Automatically (they said): ‘We would redshirt.’ No considerations whatsoever. The non-redshirted group, seven of the ten said that they would redshirt the next time. Without consideration of anything—how they’re doing at school—they would just automatically, summer boy, we would redshirt.”
In both groups, the parents noted that their decision had a much bigger impact on the boys at their current age, in adolescence, than it did when they were younger. Although this makes the decision more difficult, Jones believes it is worth serious consideration. “As a parent,” she advises, “you should look at more than just what they’re like at that exact age of five”
What Does this Mean for Teachers?
Redshirting can make teaching kindergarten much more challenging. “An entire year difference between five and six is enormous in terms of developmental education aspects,” Jones says. This can make it more difficult for teachers to meet all students’ needs.
One challenge for teachers is determining the difference between maturity and ability. “They’re confusing the two,” Jones says of some teachers, who might assume a more mature student has more ability than one who is simply young. “Often they streamline students into groups and they treat students as if they are at a certain level. Students pick up on this. It’s all based on really more maturity, not ability.”
Even if differentiation for greater readiness is clearly needed, kindergarten teachers may not all be equipped to provide that kind of individualized instruction. “In an upper socioeconomic district,” Jones says, “maybe they have the resources to provide some pull-out, gifted education, or some training for teachers in the gifted range, which does not mean that they are all gifted, but they can at least extend the learning to those students who come to school so far ahead of the others.” But in other districts, particularly those in lower-income areas, the path for redshirted students may not hold the same advantages.
The Socioeconomic Difference
When considering this study, it’s vital that parents and educators note that Jones’ research was done on families in upper-SES populations, where students often have two or more years of high-quality preschool under their belts before setting foot in kindergarten. The positive feelings these students and their families have about the decision to redshirt are likely influenced by the fact that redshirting had no negative academic effects on them.
But when students in lower-SES schools are redshirted, they are often less academically successful later on, which could certainly impact the way they perceive the redshirting experience. Jones speculates that a lack of early services may be the cause. “…(they may be) missing out on some early intervention for speech, or autism, or any kind of red flag that might occur that a preschool or kindergarten teacher would catch. If they’re not in a school environment of some sort, then those things are not being addressed.”
Recommendations for Future Research
Jones hopes more research will be done on the non-academic effects of redshirting. In addition to seeing if her results can be replicated in larger studies, she also believes more study is needed on how redshirting impacts other socioeconomic groups, and how it plays out for girls. “That’s just a whole different phenomenon,” she says. “Girls don’t want to mature as early as boys do. They don’t want to go through those changes first. They don’t want to be the first ones. Boys want that. It’s just totally different.” Knowing more about these specific populations will help parents and educators fine-tune the way these decisions are made and how schools respond when parents do opt to redshirt.
Ultimately, we did not redshirt our son. He turned five a few days after starting kindergarten and he absolutely loved it. He is now finishing third grade and so far seems to be doing just fine. If over the years he starts to develop problems fitting in socially, knowing about Jones’ research will provide a piece of that puzzle. Until then, we’ll keep doing what all parents do: using the knowledge we have right now to make the best choices we can for our kids. ♦
“Academic redshirting” in kindergarten prevalence, patterns, and implications. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Retrieved from http://cepa.stanford.edu/content/academic-redshirting-kindergarten-prevalence-patterns-and-implications(2013).
Huang, F. (2015). Investigating the prevalence of academic redshirting using population-level data. Retrieved from ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279193160_Investigating_the_Prevalence_of_Academic_Redshirting_Using_Population-Level_Data
Jones, S. (2012). Academic red-shirting: Perceived life satisfaction of adolescent males. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1022333185