Old kindergarteners

When are children old enough for kindergarten? As kindergarten becomes “the new first grade,” states are moving start dates back to ensure kindergarteners are more likely to be ready to start learning academic skills. Parents — especially affluent parents — are “redshirting” their children to give them a social and academic advantage.

Since the 1980s, about 6 to 9 percent of kindergarteners have been redshirts, but in affluent areas 25 percent of students may start a year late, writes Elizabeth Weil in New York Times Magazine.

Fred Morrison, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, sees . . . a parental obsession not with their children’s academic accomplishment but with their social maturity. “You couldn’t find a kid who skips a grade these days,” Morrison told me. “We used to revere individual accomplishment. Now we revere self-esteem, and the reverence has snowballed in unconscious ways — into parents always wanting their children to feel good, wanting everything to be pleasant.” So parents wait an extra year in the hope that when their children enter school their age or maturity will shield them from social and emotional hurt.

Elizabeth Levett Fortier, a kindergarten teacher in the George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco, notices the impact on her incoming students. “I’ve had children come into my classroom, and they’ve never even lost at Candy Land.”

New studies seem to show that students who are older than average when they start school do better than younger students through eighth grade and perhaps longer.

But disadvantaged children, who rarely attend high-quality preschools, probably benefit from starting kindergarten as soon as possible.

. . . one serious side effect of pushing back the cutoffs is that while well-off kids with delayed enrollment will spend another year in preschool, probably doing what kindergartners did a generation ago, less-well-off children may, as the literacy specialist Katie Eller put it, spend “another year watching TV in the basement with Grandma.”

My husband, who was old for his grade because of his January birthday, thought it was a big advantage. We planned to have our child early in the year so he or she — we were more worried about a boy — would have that edge in size and maturity. Born in February, Allison was average in size, socially adept and reading fluently when she started kindergarten at a Palo Alto public school. In a class of 26, four kids could read at the start of the year and a fifth joined the Big Red reading group after a few months. None were redshirts. The youngest, smallest child in the class, who made the Dec. 1 cut off by two days, was in Big Red too, if memory serves. At any rate, she ended up at Harvard. The girl who had the most difficulty forming letters — she wrote like a boy — caught up in first grade and eventually went to Yale. Well, that’s Palo Alto.

The district offers a “Young K” program for young or immature children who turn 5 by the Dec. 1 cutoff but need two years in kindergarten.

About Joanne


  1. Nancy Flanagan says:

    There are several issues here–whether the former first-grade curriculum and skill set are really appropriate for kids who’ve just turned five, why parents “red shirt” their kiddos, especially boys, and the underlying idea that pushing kids through their learning journey faster is necessarily a good thing.

    In my school, most of the red-shirted boys are kept out of kindergarten by dads who envision sports-related advantages by letting little Hunter start kindergarten when he’s four feet tall and weighs 60 pounds. We actually had a father insist that we fail his 7th grader (whose grades were average) to give him a year to get taller so he wouldn’t be riding the bench in basketball. In my school–which has a junior kindergarten, a regular kindergarten (both half- and full-day) and junior first grade and a regular first grade–most holding back is done for social reasons, not academic reasons.

    I sat at commencement and watched all those 19-year old men graduate HS. In another generation, they would have been soldiers, farmers, husbands–but in 2007, they’re still utterly dependent. Maybe the reason they’re “not ready” for school is that school is not designed for who they are at age 5, anymore.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, the University of Michigan just graduated a 19 year old woman who finished college in a year. She was interviewed by every news station (including a whole lot of “how does it feel to be so smart?” questions). Next year, she’ll go to grad school. And what, exactly, are the advantages of finishing your formal education at age 20, as opposed to, say, 24?

  2. 50 years ago I was not ready for kindergarten, but I had calmed down by first grade, still I did not excel.

    My sister redshirted her son. He was 7 when he started school. It helped socially and academically. It also helped him to excel at athletics by being bigger, stronger and more coordinated than his peers.

    Norbert Wiener graduated Tufts at 18 and became a world class mathematician. The most creative years of most scientists are their early years. Starting early can help. Norbert’s little brother did not have his gifts and was unable to repeat the achievement, no matter how hard his father tried. Walter Sithis, a contemporary of Norbert, who also graduated early became a professional calculator.

  3. wahoofive says:

    Let me get this straight: we’ve moved the first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, and so parents are waiting until their kids are first-grade age to start. And this accomplishes what? Oh, I know: then they get 13 years to graduate from high school instead of 12. I guess that’s a good thing. But I sure don’t see why dumping disadvantaged students in at the younger age is going to benefit them: it just adds another disadvantage.

  4. The great irony in wahoofive‘s comment is that while 6 year-olds are in primary/secondary school for 13 years instead of 12 now, many students are still unprepared for their tertiary education. The community college has become the new high school for average students.

  5. hardlyb says:

    I suspect that the Palo Alto parents of today are not those of Joanne’s story — in any event, I haven’t met many of them. All I see lately are parents who are already gaming their preschool kid so he or she can go to an Ivy League school, and they are intolerable by the time they get to high school (the parents, not the kids). So the kid that couldn’t write in K would either be red-shirted, diagnosed with a learn disorder, or sent to cram school at night these days. I have friends from France whose eldest is going to be a senior at Gunn next year, and they are astonished at what they see around them. His mother has been told that their straight-A, varsity athlete, in-the-band, fluent in French, Spanish, and English, who began taking AP courses as a sophomore (with all 5’s on the tests so far, and 2300+ SAT scores) son has no chance of getting into “good colleges” because he hasn’t shown leadership in his activities.

  6. AndyJoy says:

    I made the Dec. 1 cutoff for kindergarten by two weeks, but my mom chose to “redshirt” me back in 1986. She receive TONS of flack from her friends because I was already socially and academically advanced for my age. Her reasoning was 1) it would be better for me to be the oldest rather than the youngest in the class, 2) it’s riduculous to send your not-quite-five year old to school when another year at home with mom reading, painting, cooking, etc. would be better for her development, 3) I don’t want to send my not-quite-eighteen year old off to college, 4) other states have a Sept. 1st cutoff date which is much more reasonable, 5) she can always skip a grade later if needed.

    We later moved to a state where I was in the “right” grade for my age, so I was no longer the oldest. Two of my schools did end up wanting me to skip a grade, but my mom turned them down. My mom discovered that I probably wouldn’t be academically challenged by skipping just one grade, and I was doing a good job of pursuing academic challenge outside of school, so she decided to have me stay with my age-mates. She still didn’t want me going off to college at 16 or 17 even though I was gifted–we didn’t have a college near our home where I could live at home and take classes. I think she made the right choice for me. I had so many interests at that age that I would have had a horrible time finding something on which to focus in college.

  7. AndyJoy says:

    My husband got his bachelor’s at age 19, took a year off, then got a master’s in an unrelated field by 23. For him, starting college early had good and bad points. The good thing was he was stifled in high school and was on the verge of getting into trouble. His sharp wit, unconventional responses, and desire for debate were much more appreciated in college. However, he was so young and unsure about which of his interests he wanted to pursue. He ended up choosing one that really wasn’t a good fit. Plus, he met me and naturally wanted to get married after 3 years of dating. This means he was married at 19, when he was still discovering what he wanted to do in life. Thus, after a year of working in his major field, he discovered that he wanted to get an advanced degree in a different field. He was able to take one semester of deficiency courses, impress the school administrators, and jump into a master’s without a bachelor’s in that field. Fortunately for him, this cut out 3 years, but some kids who start college young and then find that interests have matured or changed might spend more time in college than if they had started at 18.

  8. Why would any parent include their child in the team sent down to an unknown planet in the role of the fill-in character who gets killed off?

  9. Mark Roulo says:

    Why would any parent include their child in the team sent down to an unknown planet in the role of the fill-in character who gets killed off?

    Maybe the child was intended to be the plucky comic relief???

    (As this veers wildly off topic …)

    -Mark Roulo

  10. Tracy W says:

    I don’t think going to uni at 18 makes it any easier to pick a topic. I was a bit on the young side for my age and wound up doing two degrees (I made up my mind I didn’t want to be doing the degree I was doing in the final year of that degree, so I finished it anyway). On the other hand, plenty of people who started uni a bit on the old side did the same switch, including a generation prior my father.

  11. R. Harlan says:

    Give me a break! Purposefully and, in the case of most U.S. states, forcibily holding your child back so that they can have a social (bullying) and academic (remedial) advantage is white, elitist nonsense. There is absoulutely no data available that demonstrate childern born later in the school year underperform those born earilier in the school year. This is pure bullshit! What is the best indicator for success in public schools? . . . and the answer isn’t even close. It is RACE!!! If I thought for one moment that holding children back (repeat without an attempt) had a smudge of validity, I would be a strong advocate for holding black children back until the ages of 8 or 9 for kindergarten. Because I would prefer to see a black 19 or 20 year old high school graduate prepared to compete instead of a sixteen or seventeen year drop-out roaming the urban jungle with a fourth grade reading level.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    All I know is I held both of my boys back — actually had one repeat kindergarten (there was no pre-first or T-1 program which is desparately needed for many, many students to make sure they are prepared for first grade) and had the other one repeat second grade. Why? Because the teacher was horrible. He learned one-half of what he needed because of her and was ill prepared for third grade. Yet, he was a straight A student.

    My older son is in a private prep school and my younger one is in a public prep school. Most of the kids in their class are their ages.

    I see nothing wrong with holding children back for a year so they start kindergarten as an older 5 year old or young 6 year old. If this makes me elitist then so be it. I did what was right for my children. Both would tell you this is true.

  13. Let me get this straight: we’ve moved the first-grade curriculum into kindergarten, and so parents are waiting until their kids are first-grade age to start. And this accomplishes what?

    It accomplishes the wishes of the parents: that their children are developmentally ready for a first-grade curriculum. Call me crazy, but it makes sense to me that if you’re going to push the first-grade curriculum down into kindergarten, the kindergarteners should be old and mature enough to handle it.

    What is this “holding a child back” that everyone is talking about? Why is a negative phrase being used to describe a positive parental action: choosing the best time for one’s child to start formal schooling.

    When parents choose to let their children wait a year before starting kindergarten, they’re doing the opposite of holding them back. They’re letting them grow and develop at their own, natural pace. This is a good thing! They’re giving their children the time they need to be ready for what everyone is admitting is a first-grade curriculum. Some children are ready for that curriculum at the ripe old age of five. Others need more time to cook. What in the world could possibly be wrong with parents choosing the path they think is best for their children?

    It’s absurd to suggest all children should start school at the arbitrary age set by the government. “School choice” should mean more than choosing which school a child attends.

    Kudos to the thinking parents who do what’s best for their kids, pundits and educrats be damned.

  14. GradSchoolMom says:

    Parents that actually choose to hold their children back or push them forward because it is for the good of their child, are doing a good thing. Unfortunately, too many parents are doing it for their own good. Are they really worried that Johnny may have to work a little harder or settle for the “average” or are they competing with the boy and girl next door and deciding that Johnny needs be captain of the football team and go to an Ivy League college? Sometimes it is very difficult to recognize the true motives. When it becomes a rising trend, it usually indicates wrong motives.

  15. Jeeze, parents can’t win. I wish I had a nickel for every complaint about parents who aren’t involved enough in their kids’ educations. And now when we have an example of involved parents, we’re told their motivations aren’t pure enough and they should just do what someone else tells them to do.

    Who are any of us to decide what the “right” and “wrong” motives are for any parents? The educational bureaucracy has long been manipulating school systems, curricula, and students in an attempt to generate a particular outcome. NCLB is only the latest big-news example of this. Why is it okay for “the system” to do it and not parents? Parents should not just sit back and accept every new wrinkle the schools hand them. If the schools make a major change, like pushing the curriculum down an entire grade and changing the nature of kindergarten, then parents are wise to think about it and respond to it. Anything less is negligent.

  16. Bill Simon says:

    I read an interesting comment today at gop3.com regarding the disadvantage of the choice to redshirt on my kid’s wallet in the future taht I had not thought of before