I have been having an ongoing online discussion with some friends about kindergarten readiness. There has been a trend in our peer group, which is upper-middle class, to “red-shirt” children, mostly boys, who have fall birthdays, and even some summer birthdays, in kindergarten. This means they will start kindergarten when they are on the verge of turning or just having turned six, instead of when they are just turning five. Instead of being the youngest children in the class, they are the oldest children in the class. There isn’t a lot research on the actual practice of red shirting but there is research that shows that the oldest children in a class statistically perform better. I have a few observations on this.
Someone has to be the youngest in the class.
If all the children with fall birthdays wait a year to start kindergarten, as they will here in California when we finish shifting the cut-off date in a couple of years, then we just shift who the youngest kids in the class are. I imagine this change in California is probably just going to lead to an increase in the “red-shirting” of children with summer birthdays. As a parent you want the best for your individual child. That is reasonable, but not every child can be the oldest in the class. Someone has got to be the youngest. If we continue on this trajectory we are just going to keep shifting the starting age of kindergartens upward.
Which kids are being re-shirted?
Children from homes with lower socio-economic status usually are not redshirted. Redshirting is an expensive option when both parents work or when the child comes from a single-parent household. An extra year outside of public education represents an extra year of daycare or preschool costs. Impoverished students will typically be younger than the other children in class. Since they are also entering school with fewer literacy skills than their peers (Foster & Miller, 2007), they are already behind their peers in terms of academics on the first day of kindergarten.
What if most of the children not being “red-shirted” are the ones that would benefit the most from it? Take this totally made up scenario. Bob and Jim are both turning six in October. Bob comes from an upper middle class family, and has been attending a high quality preschool since he was three. Jim is from a lower class family, and has had no formal preschool. Bob already comes in at an advantage of two points from having two years of preschool and much of what is taught in kindergarten he already knows, so he only benefits from being in kindergarten by one point. Jim will learn so much in kindergarten that it will raise his achievement two points. Delaying kindergarten for either kid will see an increase of one point in achievement. If they both start kindergarten this year, at the end of the year Bob has an achievement of 3 and Jim has an achievement of 2. Here’s a table:
|Bob’s achievement||Jim’s achievement||Bob’s advantage|
|Both start kindergarten||3||2||1|
|Bob is red-shirted, but not Jim||4||2||2|
|Jim is red-shirted, but not Bob||3||3||0|
In real life, most of the children be red-shirted are like Bob. This puts children like Jim at even more of a disadvantage, than they are already at with no preschool.
So what’s the bottom line?
A cut-off age is arbitrary. As long as we have school structured the way it is there will be kids that are a full year older than other kids in the same grade. Someone will always be at the disadvantage of being the youngest child in the class. Because of this trend in red-shirting, those youngest children are more likely to also be at a disadvantage of being in a lower socioeconomic class. None of this is very helpful if you are a parent trying to decide whether or not to delay kindergarten. You can, however, reassure yourself of this: if you are in a position to be making this decision about your child, your child already has an advantage over a lot of other children, because they have a parent that cares and is in a position to make a choice.
My son has an October birthday. He started kindergarten when he was still four. He is in first grade now. He is among the youngest and smallest of his class. His maturity level is somewhere in the middle. Academically, he is near the top.