Early Childhood Opinion

Don’t Rush to Redshirt

By Sara Mead — August 17, 2010 2 min read
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I think my fellow EdWeek blogger, friend, and sometime debating partner Richard Whitmire is being flippant in titling this post on new research linking ADHD diagnosis to being relatively young for grade “Here’s Why Smart Moms Redshirt their Sons.” (btw, Don’t Dads have any say here??)

At least, I sure as heck hope so. Kindergarten redshirting (yes, it gets its name from college athletics) is the practice of enrolling a child in kindergarten a year after he or she is eligible based on age. It’s become conventional wisdom--particularly among status-conscious professional parents and people concerned about the so-called boys crisis--to advocate redshirting as a way of give children an early leg up academically and compensate for the fact that boys, on average, hit developmental milestones (particularly for verbal and fine motor skills) somewhat later than girls do.

But the evidence, on average, doesn’t back this conventional wisdom up: Redshirting does appear to give slightly older children a mild competitive advantage early in their schooling, but that advantage fades out over time. And redshirting can actually have disadvantages as youngsters grow up: Later school start is associated with lower educational attainment, lower earnings at age 30, and decreased lifetime earnings. Differential rates of redshirting for boys and girls (boys are more likely to be redshirted) may in fact partially explain gender gaps in educational attainment. There are also economic costs for parents, who may have to pay for an extra year of childcare or preschool if they redshirt, as well as an additional year of supporting children who enter the labor market a year later.

The research Richard cites, which finds that the youngest children in a grade are identified for ADHD at higher rates than older students*, doesn’t change this. Experts interviewed in the piece raise a variety of caveats; for example, older children may be underdiagnosed (although this seems unlikely).

More important, if younger children are being overdiagnosed with ADHD, the solution is not to redshirt them--after all, someone has to be the youngest in the class, so all redshirting would do would be to change who the youngest students are, setting off a kindergarten arms race. Rather, the solution is for parents, teachers and medical professionals to recognize that young-for-grade children are disproportionately diagnosed, and in response to apply extra caution in evaluating and diagnosing these children, and to evaluate children’s behavior against norms for their age, not their grade.

That doesn’t mean that redshirting is never the right choice--Children’s cognitive and social development is highly variable, and waiting a year does make sense for some children. But that’s a decision parents, pediatricians, and educators should make on an individual basis, based on the needs of their individual child and what a school can offer him or her, not based on these findings or a generalized belief that redshirting is somehow a solution to bigger educational challenges.

*This is how the studies are being reported and the easiest way to describe them, but it’s not entirely accurate: Both studies used a regression discontinuity design and compared ADHD diagnosis rates for children born the month before their state’s kindergarten entry cut-off (who might be expected to be young for grade) with children born the month after the state’s kindergarten entry cut-off (who might be expected to be among the oldest in their grades).

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.