How to succeed in kindergarten

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Four years ago, while expecting a third child, my biggest concern about having a summer baby was the likely discomfort of being pregnant in the July heat. Little did I know then that having a son with a summer birthday would mean the difficult decision I am facing now that he is 4: whether to enroll him in kindergarten on schedule or hold him back for an extra year of preschool.

“Holding back,” also known as “redshirting,” began as something parents did to maximize their children’s athletic potential. Entering school a year later could mean a child was bigger, stronger and more likely to excel in sports. More recently, parents have applied this reasoning to boost academic and social-emotional growth too. By delaying kindergarten an extra year, some parents feel they can give their kids the advantage of an extra year of social maturity and cognitive development.

Even the California Legislature has gotten into the act. This fall, SB 1381, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, will take effect, which moves the cutoff date for starting kindergarten to Sept. 1. It used to be that a child turning five by Dec. 1 was eligible for kindergarten. The new age requirement, which will be phased in over three years, aims to ensure that all kindergartners will have turned 5 by Sept. 1 of the year they begin school.


Some parents want the best chance in life for their children and will do whatever they can to give them an edge. The new age requirements will do little to prevent redshirting. Instead, I suspect it will just move the goal posts. If it was once common practice for parents with kids born in the late summer and fall to delay kindergarten for a year, now parents of kids born in spring and early summer will probably consider holding them back.

Until recently, I hadn’t considered the option of holding back my son, since he meets the fall entry age. But lately, I’ve been getting pressure from family and friends to consider it. There seems to be widespread agreement that girls mature faster than boys and thus holding boys back can be particularly important. In fact, some private schools have different entry age requirements for boys and girls.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons that parents choose to hold their kids back. Some kids have learning disabilities or simply haven’t met the social or academic milestones for kindergarten readiness. But other parents embrace the practice in an attempt to social engineer their children to the top of the class.

Of course I want do right by my son, but at the same time, I fear falling into the trap of over-parenting. I worry that attempts to remove all obstacles from his path might stunt childhood growth in other ways.

I recently met a mother who is choosing to hold back her son because he is small and she feared he would be teased by his classmates. No parent wants her child to be teased, but I think we’re trying too hard to avoid typical childhood experiences that are important learning opportunities for dealing with life’s challenges.

It didn’t used to be so complicated. As a child, I barely made the cutoff for kindergarten and was often the youngest in my class. I recently asked my mother about her decision to send me to school before I turned 5. “What decision?” she asked. “We just wanted to get you into kindergarten — the sooner, the better.”


As a social justice advocate, I’m also concerned that redshirting is inherently unfair. Parents with time and money have the ability to pay for an extra year of child care or to take additional time off work. But parents who are struggling financially often don’t have those options. As more and more middle-class parents delay kindergarten, I worry that the practice will further the achievement gap between low-income and upper-income students. If the redshirters are right and they are giving their children an academic advantage, then schools with a lot of kids who’ve been held back are likely to post higher test scores than those serving lower-income and younger students in the same grade.

Teachers, already overburdened by numerous classroom demands, might be ill-equipped to differentiate instruction to match the learning needs of mixed-age students. If older students are demanding a more challenging curriculum to meet their needs, younger students may be left behind. And if not sufficiently challenged, older students may be bored and disengaged.

Parents who advocate redshirting argue that schools have changed, and in this they have a point. Kindergarten has become the new first grade, with much more emphasis on academics and test preparation. Like my peers, I value learning through play, art, inquiry and socialization. But instead of delaying the inevitable, we should be pushing for more creative and engaged learning experiences for young children.

Sending a child to school isn’t just about kindergarten; it’s also important to consider how the age difference might play out in middle and high school. Even if holding back a child builds self-esteem in the younger grades, it may have the opposite effect on an overgrown teenager eager to assert his independence. As one friend with a teenager at home warned, “Are you sure you want an 18-year-old adult living with you during high school?”

As in families, every classroom has to have a youngest, oldest and middle child, and each position carries advantages and disadvantages. Age and size are just two of many differences among kids that they have to learn to navigate.

Instead of trying to game the system, our efforts would be better focused on providing high-quality educational opportunities for all rather than pursuing a narrow decision that may serve to give advantages to the privileged few.


Julie Flapan is a researcher and director of civic engagement for UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. She expects to enroll her son in kindergarten this fall.