Ask the grumpies: Why are you mostly against red-shirting?

J asks:

Do you see any benefits for me holding my daughter back from starting kindergarten? Her birthday is a few days before the cutoff.
Reasons for holding her back in my head: another year of relaxed preK learning, slight advantage for her getting into gifted programs, more confidence (potentially). Drawbacks that I see: 1) she might be bored academically if she is the oldest and this might lead to behavior problems, 2) it would cost more money to pay for another year of full-time preK.
I don’t see much research on girls being held back. It’s mostly about boys.

So… this is really the wrong place to ask for positive things about red-shirting (the term for starting a kid late in K).  #1’s kids are both grade-skipped (even the one whose birthday is a few days before the cutoff) and #1 and #2 both wish they’d been grade-skipped.

Kindergarten programs vary tremendously across the country, but most of them are still a transition into first grade even in the places where kids are expected to be reading and doing simple addition by the end of the year.  That’s because a lot of kids still come in without having had any pre-K and they need to learn how to do things like sit still, take turns, follow instructions, stand in lines, and so on.

On this blog, we don’t see learning as inherently a bad thing.  The idea of not getting to learn when you could is anathema.  Why start a year behind when you don’t have to?  If not already reading, why hold back the phonics tools to read and all the joy that comes from that?  Why not get challenged while you’re still young and it’s still fun and you’re not expected to know everything already?  Starting later always seems less relaxing because there’s more pressure from expectation.  It is easier to drop back than it is to jump forward should troubles arise.

Academic advantages from redshirting tend to disappear by around third grade (athletic advantages persist).  For kids on the margin of finishing high school, redshirting can make the difference between not graduating and graduating simply because of compulsory schooling laws– that is, a kid who is a senior age 17 is more likely to graduate from high school than one who is 18.

I’m not entirely sure what the advantage of being in a gifted program is for someone who doesn’t need to be in a gifted program?  If a kid needs to be in a gifted program, then they should be, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t?  The idea is to address a special need.  Depending on the tests they use, an additional year may or may not help because many gifted tests are age adjusted.  I guess there are arguments for it if it’s not actually a gifted program but a program for academic achievement, but so much more would be gained in terms of learning by being on grade-level rather than being behind.

Schools are also more likely to diagnose special needs than preschools and get kids with special needs intervention, so that is another benefit of starting on time as most interventions work better the earlier they start.  (I vaguely remember my sister getting speech therapy for a lisp.)

In terms of confidence, I don’t know about the research, but I do know growing up, we knew who was a year older because they “flunked kindergarten” or started late.  That was definitely worse than being on the younger side.  People against grade-skipping are always asking about what happens when our kids hit puberty age etc. (answer:  it has not been a problem for DC1), but being on the earlier side of physical development also has the possibility of being unpleasant… much better to not be the first person in your cohort going through it.  Similarly with grade-skipping folks are always asking “what happens when it’s time for college” (answer:  we’ll figure that out), but as someone with a PhD, I can say I had more options for timing fertility than my friend in the same program who had started kindergarten late (and I needed that time since it turned out I was infertile).  And… if something goes wrong in K-college (ex. mono), there’s more options if you are on the younger side than the older… nobody wants to be 19 or 20 and still in high school.  It’s easier to delay going into the labor market during a recession with a masters degree or stay another year in college to pick up a different major etc. if you’re younger rather than older (unless you have wealthy parents willing to support you for years, of course).  There’s just less room for mistakes and changes when you’re older and wanting to start an adult life.

And that’s why I don’t see the point in red-shirting unless there’s a really good reason, or sports are super important (like, professionally important) for a family.

In terms of actual advice:  Take things a year at a time.  It is far easier to drop back if things aren’t working out than to get back to a normal grade.  Since your kid has been in pre-K (and thus knows how to sit in a circle, not hit people, etc.), it is probably going to be just fine.  If it isn’t fine, then you can decide then and try again later.  (And if the kid is hyperactive in preschool, she may blossom in Kindergarten with more challenges–that’s the main reason we started DC1 at 4.)


30 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Why are you mostly against red-shirting?”

  1. Michael N Nitabach Says:

    If one is seeking the athletic benefits of red-shirting, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to wait to do it until there’s a sense for sport(s) the child is good at/interested in first? This way the extra year can be spent training specifically for that sport? I mean unless one is following the Todd Marinovich model of BORN TO BE AN NFL QUARTERBACK, which didn’t really work out that well.

    BTW, please praise me for not doing my usual bsns abt skipping grades! 😹😹😹

  2. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Most elementary schools do an intake assessment too, so they can tell you If your kid seems super not ready for kindergarten. Ours almost never does this because kindergarten is set up for a bunch of wee children, many of whom don’t know their letters yet, to go learn things. Seriously, there’s a huge range in a k classroom – I went and volunteered in my kids’ every week. Imagine how bored your kid would be if they were the only one who could read in the whole class.

    (My five year old is totally going to K next year. If it’s open, which I devoutly hope because nobody’s life is set up for this. Several people asked me if Middle Kid was going the year he was 5; his birthday is there weeks after the cutoff and so he was already almost six. Yes. I would have sent him the previous year if they let me.)

  3. omdg Says:

    You present really cogent arguments for NOT holding a kid back, particularly if the kid is not going to be doing athletics professionally. In my own life (anecdata alert!) the kids who were redshirted were never as strong academically, but were often ahead socially, and it didn’t matter at all. Since success in life is often predicated on how cool you are rather than how smart you are, they ended up doing just fine. I doubt being held back made much of a difference in their life trajectories.

    Still, athletic success seems to be very important to a lot of parents, many of whom push competitive sports onto their 6 year olds, even among kids are probably going to end up making a living using their brains. They cite a few reasons:

    1) Future college scholarships. I personally want my kid to go to college to learn something and get good grades, and have observed that heavy participation in collegiate sports at that level often detracts from the learning experience, but I get the sense that not everyone feels that way or cares. Or maybe they are trying to groom future Rhodes Scholars.

    2) Popularity. The high schools the parents went to strongly favored jocks (moreso than brains) and they want their kids to be popular.

    3) Some parents believe that being on a team will make you more successful in life because you will learn how to interact with others more effectively in a competitive environment at a young age. I have historically found these people pushy and aggressive, and off-puttingly corporate even in interpersonal relationships, but they do seem to do well professionally, so maybe there is something to that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      In my experience, some redshirted kids smoked and didn’t make it through college (but boy were they sexy in 8th grade before they started smoking). Though boys, not girls. The redshirted woman in my PhD program is now a SAHM, though who knows if that’s related.

    • xykademiqz Says:

      “…I have historically found these people pushy and aggressive, and off-puttingly corporate even in interpersonal relationships…”

      *applause* This is amazingly well put. Thank you!

  4. Steph Says:

    I went to a small private school, where the “cutoff” for entering kindergarten was later in the fall if you already had a sibling at the school. So there was a kid in my kindergarten class who didn’t turn 5 until Nov or Dec? And then he repeated kindergarten and spent the rest of his school career in my sister’s class. I think as little kids we were kind of confused as to why that happened, but I don’t think it affected him significantly in the long run. So it seems reasonable to me to just let your daughter start, and then see how things go.

  5. bogart Says:

    So, were it any year other than 2020, as a parent in @J’s position I might be interested in this question and considering arguments for/against. Given that it’s 2020 if I had a kid about to start K and were in a position to keep them in what I infer is a good and familiar preK I’d redshirt without a moment’s hesitation. I do not think the coming year is going to be a good year for kids in school, I am anticipating disruptions, likely intervals of stay-at-home orders, teachers (and systems) who are neither prepared nor well situated to offer online learning being called upon to teach online, and a general mess. I’d absolutely redshirt.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      But you can take it one year at a time—those exact problems are still going to happen with preschool, and the first grade class will be aware. And this kid knows all the important non academic stuff that they spend so much time on in kindergarten. If it turns out to be a problem they can repeat kindergarten without the stress of having to pay preschool while not actually getting childcare.

      • bogart Says:

        OK. Of course I don’t know the kid or the preschool or the kindergarten, but would value consistency and familiarity in what I think is going to lie ahead (I’ll admit I’m skeptical about whether much learning is going to occur in public schools at all next year, and particularly for younger kids). OTOH, I also know nothing about @J’s finances and clearly there are also good reasons for being fiscally cautious in the current environment.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Lots of preschools have kindergartens attached, so one could do K at the preschool and then go directly to first grade. My sister did that and started first grade normally (since our public K was only half-day). In some states Kindergarten is optional.

        Kids are often more resilient than we give them credit for.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        BTW– if a LOT of parents are thinking like this, redshirting becomes less weird, but also the next year’s cohort gets a lot larger. If a lot of kids end up graduating a year later, that will have effects on who gets into what college and even on short-term labor markets. You generally want to be in a small cohort surrounded by larger cohorts in terms of life outcomes. That’s only a this cohort specific thing though, not a general redshirting thing.

      • bogart Says:

        Yes, these are all good points. I live in a place where public K is mandatory and free (though private K is an option — I mean, if you are not in private K, public K is required, not otherwise) and where good quality private options are not *insanely* expensive (though they are noticeably more expensive than free), but there is of course a lot of variation across different areas.

  6. M Says:

    I totally agree with all of your arguments. I say – the sooner the better! I will say that I have some empathy for red-shirting for some families where the child truly does not seem “ready” for kindergarten developmentally. I saw this in my preschool cohort. There really is a difference, and I would say only a small percentage fell into this category. Mostly boys too, which speaks to the challenges males face in the conventional school system. I disagreed with most of the parents who waited based on what I knew of their children (but it’s their choice, obviously).

    As someone who skipped a grade (grade 1), I will say that the combination of being a year younger than my classmates AND being physically developmentally behind (like 2 years behind just naturally) was a little rough. And being younger combined with being generally shy and socially awkward was rough. But overall it was fine, and I did have plenty of friends, and still got along with the cool kids even though I was not “cool” myself, and as my husband likes to say, it builds resilience. Kids who go through quasi-challenging times can come out as much stronger adults.

  7. Leah Says:

    I think it’s best to discuss with the preschool teacher. Our daughter is young for her grade (summer birthday), so socially/behaviorally she’s still a little bit behind, especially when I see the kids who are a full 9-11 months older than her. But academically, she’s been fine in kindergarten. Her teacher assures us that the social stuff will come, and I certainly hope so. She’s a little bit of an odd duck (hmm, somewhat like her parents!).

    One of her friends born the same day was held back. He’s a boy, and the mom is a high school guidance counselor. She noted that my daughter won’t turn 18 until after she graduates HS. In her experience, she has definitely seen a difference in boys in HS based on their ages, and she’s considered about maturity and being too young in HS. My husband turned 19 his senior year of high school (his district had him do something called “pre-first grade” — I often suspect he was held back because they had to fill out an entire class of kids, and he was a rambunctious, spirited child), and he said that was fine . . . but I also know it means he turned 21 way before his friends in college and thus was sometimes a supplier.

    This is a really personal decision that truly should depend on your kid. There’s kids who do well being the youngest in their class and kids who don’t, and it is a challenge to predict which way it goes. We settled on sending our daughter at 5 and figuring that there would be challenges either way. That’s what worked for us financially and as a family.

  8. Notorious Says:

    As far as I see it there are two separate, though entwined, issues in redshirting. One is “what’s best for the child” and the other is trying to gain a comparative advantage for your child. Clearly they are not independent. If your child is legit not prepared for kindergarten then that is one thing. But “its better for my kid to be older” is selfish advantage hoarding whether it is based on academics or athletics. The thought experiment to do is to ask yourself what you would do if all of a sudden the entire world decided that K should start at 6 and not 5.
    In the pre-change world you might have redshirted your kid with an august birthday so they didn’t start K right after turning 5 and end up as the youngest in the class. So if the world decided that K should start at 6,
    would you send your kid who now turned 6 in august (and would STILL be one of the youngest in the class) to K at 6 or would you hold hir out until 7 so they would be one of the oldest and not one of the youngest. If the latter, all you are doing is trying to gain advantage for your kid at the expense of everyone else….

  9. CG Says:

    I think red-shirting is bad for society in general. Having a class with such wide age ranges puts the youngest at a social disadvantage that they wouldn’t have if the class spanned a single year of birthdays. Also, anecdotally, the “fast” kids in my grade, who at the time we saw as cool but who were more likely to be engaging in risky behavior, were the older ones. So maybe it wasn’t great for them individually, either. It would be interesting to know if they would have exhibited the same behaviors if they’d been on the younger side in the next grade up, or if there was something in their personalities that both led them to gravitate toward those behaviors and led their parents to hold them back.

    • CG Says:

      And FWIW I was one of the young ones–I entered kindergarten at age 4. Academically I was still bored. Socially I limped along in elementary school, then middle school was fine, and high school was great.

  10. Ali Says:

    I think it depends a LOT on where you live and what others in your situation choose to do. We live in an area where red-shirting is very common and as a result, it can be a real disadvantage if you choose not to do so. Our school cutoff is mid-August. My oldest turned 6 in July before starting K (so we waited a year), and even still he was right in the middle of the age distribution. As a result of so much red-shirting a lot of preschools (ours included) have pre-K 5 classes which is basically kindergarten with shorter hours, so the kids that do that go into K already having mastered K skills, doing some limited reading, etc. In other school districts, I think it would’ve been a bad idea to do this but where we live this is much more the norm.

  11. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I struggle to stick with the academic and not SF definition of “redshirting”!

    TIL that K isn’t mandatory nationwide. I had no idea.

    Anecdata: I was on the younger side, 17 at graduation, and was socially meh but did fine enough all throughout K-12. Being young wasn’t my issue. I stood out because I was ridiculously small and disproportionately (to my size) mean to anyone who bullied me. But in general, we never noticed who was older or younger, though we definitely had 19 year old HS grads in our year. I got along great with the older ones even though I wasn’t up to their intellectual or academic achievement levels. They did great, socially and academically strong, but the common thread was we were all in the Honors track. I don’t know if the same meshing was as smooth for kids 2 years apart in the Gen Ed track.

    Observing JB at age 5 now, I think they thrived in a larger classroom with older kids. I expected them to do better in a small classroom with same-age kids but at least one of those two variables (class size, if I had to guess) is detrimental to their engagement and enjoyment of the class. Just as well that’s the class we’ve had cut short, I guess.

  12. First Gen American Says:

    Hindsight is everything. My older one seemed so ready. I could not imagine him going another year – he was an August baby, so right at the cutoff. BUT now looking back, he was in a huge birth year in my area and it was an issue getting daycare, preschool, being choices into where we wanted, etc. I also think being a year older would have helped with his study habits and organization. My younger one missed the cutoff and it’s just easier all around for him. His work habits match up the level of work he’s assigned much better. He also had ants in his pants ams couldn’t imagine him sitting still all day at 5. ..but if he was my first kid I probably wouldn’t have thought that way. I just would have looked at his academic readiness. The social thing was an issue in the early grades, but now my 9th grader has older friends, so that gets better over time.

  13. First Gen American Says:

    oh, and I should note that my older kid is very tall, so size wasn’t an issue being on the young side. Early on when he’d cry about something at school and the older kids in his grade were like “crying is for babies” …..and that had long lasting effects on his self esteem that took many years to get over. An extra year older in kindergarten is like 20% of their life experience. In high school, you are the last to get your drivers license. As you can sense, I regret it a little, plus the kids in the grade below are a much nicer class all around….but it’s hard to know that bit ahead of time. He now is a 9th grader and hangs around the 8th and 10th and even a 12th grade kid. Somehow a lightbulb clicked this year and we all realized he’s not bound to trying to make friends in his grade level who frankly are not his tribe and never were even though he’s been with this same group of kids since 3rd grade. Most of his friends are from crew that mixes grades and genders on one team and it has been awesome.

    • First Gen American Says:

      And to what notorious was saying, one of my son’s earliest friends in 1 st grade was almost 2 years older than my son because he was redshirted and it just was too big an age gap. I remember he turned 7 when my son was still 5. So, I guess the bigger issue wasn’t the people who were close to the cutoff month and chose to wait, but the ones who weren’t even close and redshirted anyway.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Are kids in your area getting drivers licenses on time? Out here everyone is putting it off until their parents force them, usually as seniors.

  14. j Says:

    Thank you for posting and for all of the commentary. It is very useful to me.

    She is currently registered and we plan to send her in August.

    The gifted program in our area is based on grade not age. I don’t know if she would place in to that program anyway, but it’s annoying that with her being the youngest, she will seemingly have a reduced chance of placing in.

    • J Says:

      An update for the sake of completeness—I emailed school district to understand process if we decided to hold her back in 2021. They wrote that they rarely recommend holding back. We would have a meeting with administrators if we wanted to have that considered.

      We are still planning on sending her but it does not look like holding her back will be at all easy after she’s in the system. This is upsetting to feel like options are taken away. It’s also consistent with what I heard from another parent. Once they start it’s very hard to change course unless we switched to private.

  15. sasha Says:

    We redshirted all three of our (summer) babies. We have three (very petite) girls who we decided didn’t need to be the smallest, youngest *and* female going into a school system that routinely redshirted (usually huge corn-fed boys, lol). Now, as older teens at 5’1″, 4’11” and 5’3″ (my youngest is an amazon, lol) – we are more happy than ever they weren’t the youngest in their grades.

    Our oldest is graduating high school this month and going off to college. Watching her talked to her soon-to-be professors over the last 3-4 months to make plans for her first year of college and thinking about what she was like last year makes me happy we chose to redshirt all those years ago. Her confidence and poise is incredible, and the gift of that year has helped us have a bit more time to deal with some of the emotional upheaval of teenage-hood that she had.

    Our children still got their licenses at 16, got jobs soon after, etc. If we hadn’t had teeny tiny girls, we might have made different choices. But tiny, quiet, female and young was not an advantage in our school system so we chose to at least give our girls the gift of not the youngest. Still were by and large the tiniest…all three were/are a lot less quiet than they were when we had to make the choice to redshirt or not.
    P.S. It has worked for us, but I want to be clear that I don’t think it is the only choice or the right choice for everyone. If redshirting hadn’t been so ubiquitous in our district, we may have made different choices all those years ago. But having a two year gap was too large when we saw the difference in how children were treated and reacted in classrooms.

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