Academic redshirting--voluntarily delaying the start of kindergarten until a child is six--was named after the red jerseys worn by college athletes who were kept out of competition for a year so that they had more time to practice and become a better player. A similar principle is at work with holding back kindergartners. “Parents are postponing an age-eligible student in hopes that they will be a stronger candidate for kindergarten the following year,” says Stacey Gengel, Ph.D., a licensed school psychologist.  In her practice, she sees a lot of this being done when a child is physically smaller or their speech and language are delayed or they just aren’t able to follow directions yet. Studies done on redshirting have also shown that a large percentage of these children come from families in a higher socioeconomic bracket. Anecdotally, Stacey has observed that most of this is done in the private sector versus the public. It would make sense as the families with a higher income would be the ones able to send their child to a private school and afford an additional year of pre-school. Although redshirting can be done in public schools but the child cannot be older than six upon entering kindergarten. According to The National Center for Education Statistics, six percent of kindergartners are redshirted in the U.S. (with some variation throughout neighborhoods). They also state that “the number of kindergartners over the age of five has more than tripled from 5.4 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2009.”  This could be due to states having moved up their cut off dates for kindergarten entry to combat the increasing academic demands of school curriculum. A typical classroom could have children that have just turned five as well as those that have already celebrated their sixth birthday. Stacey feels that this is a “ huge span of development in little people’s lives.” She adds that if older children are becoming more of a normal occurrence in kindergarten, then this could ultimately perpetuate the problems of a more rigorous curriculum. Judy Fried is a seasoned kindergarten teacher at the Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans, with over 30 years of experience. While she knows that there will be a wide range of birthdays in her class each year, she tries to focus on where each child is developmentally. “We are handed the birthdays at the beginning of the year and when they come into my class, I look at what they are capable of and what they are currently doing.  I never think about who is my oldest or who is my youngest.” Judy actually finds that the multi-level classroom can provide a very beneficial learning environment—where the younger children are mentored by the older who feel more confident and self-assured because of their age.   the gift of time A recent Stanford study shed some positive light on redshirting. Researchers looked at Danish children who delayed the start of kindergarten for a year and found that the delay reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child when they reached] age 11.”  However, the study focused more on the mental health gains in children who postponed kindergarten versus the academic. Redshirting has yet to be tied to improving overall test scores. So these findings then bring up this question—does delaying school allow children another year of nurturing through creative playtime? Stacey feels that it can as long as there is access to a quality pre-school program. “Preschool and kindergarten curricula should be largely imaginative play—activities that will encourage self-regulation skills. This is antithetical to the test-heavy and constant skills-assessment philosophy that has taken over our school programming in the last several years,” she says. “If you drill children with worksheets and assessments all day, they will almost certainly look fidgety and restless.” Consuelo Barron has been a pre-K teacher for over 15 years; she currently teaches the younger preschool class at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center (JCC). This is more of a transitional class with the student’s birthdays falling in the spring, summer and early fall. Because of this, all of her students have the option of staying at the JCC and completing another year of pre-K. “I don’t like calling it redshirting.  I like the parents to see it in a more positive light. I don’t push it but I tell them that they can give their child the gift of another year,” she says. While Consuelo tries to assess the students to see who is still play-oriented and who might be ready for more academic table work, she ultimately leaves the decision up to the parents. In this past year, roughly half of her class went on to kindergarten and half stayed in a preschool setting. “I don’t feel like it hurts them to have another year,” Consuelo remarks. “You hardly ever hear ‘I’m so sorry that I held them back. They are so bored,’ but you do hear about the struggles of the younger children.” While it seems that there are some positive emotional and social gains for a child who is redshirted, Stacey does have concerns about those parents that hold back a child “who exhibits typical age-appropriate skills just to gain an academic advantage.”  Research has shown that these results can be very marginal and eventually fade over time. It seems best for parents to focus on whether their child can benefit from extra time to play—and keep their aspirations of an Ivy League school to themselves.   Sarah Herndon of Covington is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to nola baby & family.

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