Emerson Grubb of Atlanta was 7 during most of his time in first grade, and that suited his parents just fine. His May birthday fell before Georgia’s September 1 enrollment cutoff date, so he could have entered first grade the prior year, but his parents opted to postpone. “We agreed with his teachers that he needed more time to develop socially and emotionally,” his mom, Susan, says. “The school had a pre-first program so we knew he would still move on academically rather than repeating kindergarten.” Today, Emerson is a happy and successful ninth grader and his parents know that he benefited from that extra year.

Perhaps you’re considering postponing the kindergarten or first grade enrollment of your age-eligible child as the Grubbs did. You’re not in a minority. This practice is commonly referred to as “red shirting” – or at least that’s what it is called in the world of college sports where an athlete sits out a year or more in order to lengthen eligibility. While some parents may red shirt a younger child for athletic reasons, the trend of academic red shirting is more and more common and shows no signs of slowing down. But are you really doing your child a favor by having him sit on the bench, so to speak?

“It depends on the child,” says Lillian G. Katz, Ph.D., co-director of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting and Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There is such a distinction between academic and intellectual goals for young children and when and whether a child has achieved them. That alone can play an enormous role in determining if he or she is ready for kindergarten or first grade.”

Only 9% of children were being red shirted back in the mid-nineties. By 2007, 16.4% of children entering kindergarten were age 6 or older according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The jump likely has to do with schools’ increasing emphasis on academic achievement and parents’ growing attentiveness to their kids’ emotional needs. And since boys’ neurological maturity occurs slightly later than girls, it’s no surprise they represent the lion’s share of these statistics especially if their birthday happens to fall in the latter half of the year.

Georgia law requires a child to be 5 years old on or before September 1 to enter public kindergarten, and 6 on or before September 1 to enter first grade. Public schools are strict about this rule; enrollment can be delayed for a child with an early birthday, but schools won’t enroll a child who doesn’t meet the age requirement. Private schools typically follow the same September 1 cutoff date, but may allow more flexibility for children with earlier birthdays. Some parents circumvent the issue by enrolling their child in private school for kindergarten and first grade, then transferring the child to second grade in a public school, when there is no stated age requirement.

Lisa DeLuna wonders if her son Jacob might have benefited from being held back. He started kindergarten mere weeks after turning five and he strained mightily to keep up, socially and academically, not only that year but for the next three. She attributes his struggles to a lack of self-confidence. “He’s always been tall for his age and people assume he’s older than he is,” she says. “He seemed ready for kindergarten at the time but it wasn’t until third grade that things really began to kick in for him.”

For parents sitting on the fence over whether or not to red shirt, it may be helpful to note that Jacob DeLuna’s experience dovetails with data compiled by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “Our research shows that even if there is a benefit from red shirting to a child in the first year or years, by third grade any differences between children held back and those not is minimal, and often nonexistent,” says Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the NAEYC.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

It’s an individual decision and you know your child best. However, here are some DO’s and DON’T’s to keep in mind:

  • DON’T let a summer or fall birthday automatically dictate your decision regarding kindergarten or first grade readiness.
  • DO check out your intended school’s readiness screening procedures or tests to get an idea of how your child may fare.
  • DO ask a teacher what is expected of incoming students and how you might help your child prepare.
  • DO listen to advice from your child’s teacher regarding your child’s readiness. Ask: What are my child’s weak points? In what areas does he surpass expectations?
  • DON’T make your child aware of your own apprehensions. Whether you hold him back or not, approach either decision with confidence and enthusiasm.
  • DO investigate the nature of a prospective kindergarten or first grade program. Is it very formal with rows of desks or less structured? Informal learning centers can accommodate a greater developmental range of children than whole class instruction, says Dr. Katz.
  • DO take into account class size. A very shy child might be overwhelmed by a large group but adapt quite readily in a setting numbering 20 children or less.
  • DO consider where your child would spend a red shirt year. If this extra year is spent in a high quality setting that nurtures the development of skills necessary for school success, it can be a positive experience.

– June Allan Corrigan

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