Early Childhood

Why Parents ‘Redshirt’ Their Kids in Kindergarten

By Lydia McFarlane — July 26, 2023 5 min read
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.
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With the start of the school year looming, some parents will choose to delay the start of their child’s educational experience, keeping them in day care or out of school entirely for another year.

This practice, called academic redshirting, is intended to give students another year to mature emotionally, academically, or physically before starting kindergarten. Experts said it’s become increasingly popular among upper middle class, college-educated parents. And some evidence suggests the practice grew after the onset of the pandemic, as parents decided to hold their students out of school rather than participate in remote learning.

As parents think about whether to enroll their children on time for kindergarten this year, Education Week spoke to experts to weigh the reasons why parents might, or might not, decide to hold their children back a year.

Start dates vary

While the cutoff date for starting kindergarten varies from state to state, students typically begin their school careers after or around their fifth birthday. Many states have August 1 or September 1 cutoff dates, which means that children must turn 5 before the cutoff in order to start kindergarten that year.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 17 states as well as the District of Columbia require students to attend kindergarten. In the remaining states, students are not required to attend school until age 6 or later. Pennsylvania, for instance, does not require attendance until students are 8 years old.

While kindergarten is optional in most states, many parents still decide to start their children’s educational careers at that point, though the entry age can vary from family to family.

Common reasons for redshirting

Readiness for school must be decided on a case-by-case basis by each family, according to Christopher Brown, a professor in the department of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the book Ready for Kindergarten?: Free Yourself from the Readiness Trap so that You and Your Child Are Ready for and Will Succeed in Kindergarten.

Brown said parents should regularly discuss their children’s school readiness before officially enrolling them.

Each parent knows their child best, so the reasons a parent might practice academic redshirting can vary. However, Brown and other researchers have observed patterns in parents’ reasons for delaying kindergarten entry.

Some parents believe their students need the extra year to catch up to their peers emotionally before starting kindergarten.

Brown said many parents in his state, Texas, also redshirt their children to give them an advantage later on in athletics. The culture of high school sports is strong throughout the South, with many parents holding out the hope their child can snag a sports scholarship to college.

Families reason that, by holding their children back a year, the students will potentially be physically stronger and larger than their peers once reaching high school, when sports competition heats up. While size does not always equate to ability, professional and college recruiters pay attention to it when scoping out new players.

“A lot of families want their children, particularly boys, to play sports in high school, and they believe being a year older will provide their child with an advantage, and there is actually some research to support this with hockey in Canada and soccer in the European Union,” said Brown. “Coaches often overestimate size with skill, which some economists have shown to create a missed opportunity by overlooking very talented players, particularly for the sport of soccer.”

Some parents redshirt their children for academic reasons. Sending a student to kindergarten at an older age than their classmates can give them a leg up academically in the short term, according to some studies. But that doesn’t necessarily last in the long-term, Brown said.

Redshirting is most common among white male students from economically advantaged backgrounds who have summer birthdays, according to Jaime Puccioni, an associate professor of literacy teaching and learning in the school of education at the State University of New York, Albany. This is because students with summer birthdays fall near the cutoff for starting kindergarten, which puts them on the younger end of their class.

Wealthier, college-educated parents also have the resources to pay for child care for an extra year, which is a luxury not all parents share.

Some families can’t afford to redshirt

A survey by Care.com, a website dedicated to helping families find affordable child care, found that parents can spend more than 20 percent of their income on child care. Of the 3,000 parents surveyed, 59 percent said they were planning to spend more than $18,000 per child on child care during 2023.

Such high child-care costs prompt many parents to enroll their children on time, or even early, in kindergarten to avoid the expense for another year, especially if the children are headed to a public school. Experts said that may mean redshirting can potentially only be beneficial for students whose parents have the resources to provide quality child care or a stable home environment.

“Not all children in the U.S. have access to these opportunities and do benefit more from entering kindergarten on time,” Puccioni said.

Delaying the start of kindergarten has also been linked to developmental delays in students over the long term, she noted, although it’s not clear whether some of those delays are what led parents to hold them back in the first place. Behaviorally, students who start kindergarten at an older age also might be behind their classmates, according to Puccioni.

Brown also said that delaying the start of kindergarten can prevent educators from spotting key signs of potential learning disabilities that present themselves early on.

“From a negative perspective, holding children out can miss an opportunity for educational stakeholders to identify developmental delays and/or learning needs,” he said. “By not being in school, children might be missing an opportunity to learn and grow with their peers.”

While both researchers acknowledged that academic redshirting has both its pros and cons, they both admit to supporting starting students on time from a personal standpoint.

“I have a daughter with an October birthday and another with a June birthday,” Brown said. “We did not redshirt either one, and while each is a very different person, we felt they were both ready for kindergarten.”

Said Puccioni: “As a parent, if presented with the choice today I would enroll my child in kindergarten on time, as the benefits far outweigh any potential negative consequences of delaying.”

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.


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