Redshirting doesn’t help kids

Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril, warn neuroscientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College, in the New York Times.

Nine percent of children old enough to start kindergarten are “redshirted” each year by parents who want to give them an edge, they write. But the advantages usually fade by the end of elementary school.  “In high school, redshirted children are less motivated and perform less well.”

 In a large-scale study at 26 Canadian elementary schools, first graders who were young for their year made considerably more progress in reading and math than kindergartners who were old for their year (but just two months younger). In another large study, the youngest fifth-graders scored a little lower than their classmates, but five points higher in verbal I.Q., on average, than fourth-graders of the same age. In other words, school makes children smarter.

High achievers benefit from skipping a grade, they add. Acceleration has twice the effect on achievement as programs for the gifted.

Children do best when they’re challenged, but not overwhelmed.

Learning is maximized not by getting all the answers right, but by making errors and correcting them quickly. In this respect, children benefit from being close to the limits of their ability. Too low an error rate becomes boring, while too high an error rate is unrewarding. A delay in school entry may therefore still be justified if children are very far behind their peers, leaving a gap too broad for school to allow effective learning.

Young children’s brains are developing rapidly. For most, the best possible contest is the classroom, Wang and Aamodt believe. That’s especially true for disadvantaged children. The trend to move back the cutoff date for starting kindergarten is hurting children from low-income families, they write.

My husband skipped a grade in elementary school. My sister skipped in middle school.  Neither faced much of an error rate in the higher grade. My daughter’s half-sister skipped high school, starting college at 14. It was not an academic challenge.  Now 18, she’s started graduate school in classics.


About Joanne


  1. Both my sister and I skipped Kindergarten (though we both attended a public pre-k). I had a November birthday and she had a December birthday. We were still at the top of our classes.

    I do think that we were often a little behind socially, especially in middle school, but the academic benefits were more than worth it
    In some ways I think we adjusted similar to how homeschoolers do their socialization. We had friends our own age in outside activities. In high school, my sister was good friends with students that were in lower grades.

    Probably the best effect was that when I became very done with school as I turned 17, I had enough credits to leave. If I had been 19 like my husband was his senior year, I might not have graduated.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Got the experiment and the control in my family. I started K at four, born in March. Did okay in school, got into a state college, did okay there. Recall some of my efforts in math in HS, think it would have been better to be a year older. Socialization was different. Not good until I was a senior and then not what I would have wanted. Socially awkward. I was pretty big compared to other kids from first grade to seventh, behind until twelfth. Seventeen when I went away to college. Would have been better all around had I a year more matuirity, given the things I did such as helmet sports and whatnot. Grades might have been better.
    Our twin children were due about Labor Day, born three weeks early. Development starts with conception, not birth, so putting them in the K class which would ordinarily take them by birth date in our state would actually put them as close to the youngest. So we waited. Pre-k and co-op nursery school and sent them off the next year. They were both varsity athletes, NHS members, leaders, and influential in the school. I don’t think any of that would have happened, especially sports, if they’d been a year younger vis a vis their classmates.
    Their socialization was astounding. They had more friends coming out of high school, and then colllege than I did, and they keep up with them, by a factor of maybe ten. Although as my father says, I had a war in between.
    Given a close call, go with the red shirt.

  3. I’ve got 2 fall birthday kids, a boy and a girl. I started kindergarten work with both at not-quite-5 because they were reading. However, only the girl was ready to move on to 1st grade work at not-quite-6. My son lagged on his fine motor skills (couldn’t even write his name until February) and his attention span wasn’t where it needed to be either. I just think girls tend to mature a bit faster than boys do. “Redshirting” would’ve been a very bad idea for DD but I think doing a “transition” year in between K & 1st was the right decision for DS.

  4. All four of my kids (now mid-late 20s to mid-30s) were very young for their classes; between 1-2 years younger than most and occasionally more than 2 years (in an area where redshirting was very common – for the younger two, it ws the norm). They all went to Montessori preschools-kindergartens, followed by public schools. All started HS at 13. The oldest (boy) was very small and didn’t grow until sophomore year, the next (boy) grew earlier and the younger two (boy, girl) were average or better for their classes (big for ages). None had any academic or social problems, but I think would have had social/behavioral problems if they had been held back. One thing that really helped was that they were all serious, full-time athletes, who made their HS teams, as freshmen, in very competitive sports.

  5. A child who shows all the signs of high intelligence, who doesn’t act younger than his peers, will likely not be redshirted. “Redshirting” for school entry doesn’t occur in a vacuum, in other words. You can’t assume that “school makes children smarter.” (I’m assuming the children weren’t randomly assigned to enter school or wait a year.) A child whose parents think he’s likely to struggle keeping up with the others will be less likely to be enrolled.

    As placement decisions for middle school are made at the end of elementary school, a competitive advantage can make a difference in long-term outcomes, even if the difference fades by the end of elementary school.

    I don’t know that I’d agree that a higher percentage of graduate degrees for the accelerated argues for a better outcome. It could be that accelerating students lead them to self-identify as scholars, but to be too young to form social bonds with peers. Is a PhD in Philology better for the world than a middle school teacher?

  6. I’ve seen this discussion in a number of places now, with similar responses — a cross-section of sincere responses from a cross-section of parents giving their own experiences. I’ve already participated in a couple of them with my own experiences. At this point I’m just going to say that everyone who pontificates arrogantly about how all parents must do it the way they say — or be damned as bad parents — should be taken out and shot. (Sorry, should find some more creative penalty for them, but I’m tired and out of creativity.)

  7. I suppose that the key is what you said – children should be ‘challenged, but not overwhelmed’. If it’s do-able and desirable, why not? Admittedly, as a parent or teacher, I would be somewhat concerned about the social issues which could potentially arise with skipping grades – but each situation and each child is different. One needs to keep the overall picture in perspective and make the best choice for the child at hand.

  8. Soapbox0916 says:

    I had almost the opposite experience, I kind of wish I had been red-shirted. The decision was my made by my parents (against the advice of school officials) to start me in kindergarten at age 4. I started college when I was 17. I was definitely smart enough, I am a true nerd, but the problem is that socially I was not ready. Plus it really hurt me when it came to sports because physically I was always just a little bit behind. I was the smallest person in my grade for many years. I just wanted to fit in.

    As for challenge, I was still academically bored , the “advanced” grade did not help in any way that I can tell. But the social awkwardness of always feeling like I had to catch-up socially still has an effect on me today as an adult. I was more comfortable hanging around kids a grade or two younger than me. I would up dating guys slightly younger than me. School environments are more than just academic learning, growing up is also about physical and social development.

    Even if the benefits of redshirting really do wear off by high school, which I seriously doubt, for me the memories of always feeling behind my grade peers shaped my entire future. Never feeling quite ready carried over into high school for me.

    Similar to the earlier post about single sex education, the benefits of red-shirting are not really about learning. I personally hate the idea of single sex education with every fiber of my being and I am totally against encouraging it for the mass population. That said, even I can see in a case-by case basis that some kids could benefit from single sex education especially for non-learning reasons. So similarly, some kids benefit from red-shirting especially for non-learning reasons. Some kids don’t benefit. People are different.

    • OTOH, I really regret that my parents refused a proposed grade skip for me when I moved from private school to public school in 3rd. I have a January birthday and missed the cutoff by 3 weeks. So I was always the oldest student in my grade aside from the kids who had repeated a grade. I also had the misfortune of hitting puberty on the early side, which put me about 18 months ahead of when most of the girls in my grade developed. As a result, I suffered horrible sexual harassment from the boys and verbal bullying from the girls. Had I skipped into the higher grade, I would’ve have stuck out nearly so much.

      • Soapbox0916 says:

        I agree with you about it being case by case, we both didn’t want to stick out as much as we did.

        I feel uneasy about saying that girls mature faster than boys in terms of redshirting. In some ways that it is true, but in the big picture, girls and boys mature in different ways. As a young girl, I heard all the time from people how mature I seemed. I think my nerdy ability to talk like I was much older combined with my personality of being quiet and not wanting to cause trouble often mislead people to think I was a lot more mature than I really was growing up, but in many ways I know I was also immature for my age and way behind my peers.

        My mother had skipped a semester and loved it, so redshirting me did not even occur to my mother as an option, even when school administrators begged my parents to redshirt me.

        I would not base redshirting purely on academic learning ability. It is a tough call.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    I’m with Cranberry here. Where are the studies of kids who were redshirted compared to kids whose parents wanted to redshirt them but couldn’t? Parents don’t redshirt by looking at a calendar– they redshirt by looking at the kid. If the kid seems unready, they redshirt, but if the kid seems like he/she will be find, they don’t redshirt.

    Especially in suburban areas, kids, especially boys, who are young for their grade most likely seemed exceptionally ready for kindergarten. So we can learn nothing by comparing those more-advanced students with their less-advanced redshirted peers.

  10. Well, that proves it — redshirting is bad for kids.
    Oh, wait… the article doesn’t prove *anything*, it just re-presents the top-line assertions that the book authors may or may not have any science behind. The article doesn’t say much about any science.
    That’s not really the NY Times’ role, I suppose, but it makes it hard to learn anything about the matter.

  11. Redshirting can be an entirely different thing from one area of the country to the next. I don’t even get the terms. In Missouri, the cutoff is having a July 31 or earlier birthday. So far as I know there are no exceptions; you cannot send your child to school “early.” Yet other places I know have late September cutoffs… maybe I am picking at small differences, but when there is no real wiggle room in terms of sending a child “early” it may be important.

    • Red-shirting is sending the kid to Kindergarten 1 year *late*, not early. I don’t think anyone is advocating sending 3-year-olds off to kindergarten (yet).

  12. In my school district in California, the school cutoff (soon to change) has been December 2nd. Neither of my sons, born Dec. 5 and Nov. 30, was ready at 4 1/2 to start kindergarten. Technically, I “redshirted” my youngest and didn’t my eldest, even though, due to having a scheduled C-section for the 2nd, they would have been gestationally almost exactly at the same place on Dec. 2nd, just 2 years apart.

    As it happens, my younger son is one of those who will send the statistics in the “redshirting is bad” direction because he already is struggling in school (and did so in kindergarten). Why do these studies always claim the redshirting is what caused the later trouble? That seems silly! Isn’t the redshirting caused *by* whatever problem causes the parent to hold their kid back???

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    Why do these studies always claim the redshirting is what caused the later trouble? That seems silly! Isn’t the redshirting caused *by* whatever problem causes the parent to hold their kid back???

    Because the researchers don’t have the data to “control” for previous problems, and they have to publish to get college tenure and get future research grants. So there is a great incentive to put out results that are, um, less than rigorous. It may also be true that they are getting, or hope to get, research grants from organizations that oppose “redshirting.”

    So they put out studies that don’t really say what they presume to say, but the researchers can tell their consciences, “we did the best we could with the data that was available.”

  14. I did not delay my children’s kindergarten entries. I have friends and acquaintances who did. As far as I can tell, all of the parents went through a period of research and soul-searching, trying to make the best decision for their children. It was not done on the spur of the moment–and no one did it with an eye to making the high school football team ten years later! It’s a hard decision to make, as even at 4, kids do have friends who are going on to kindergarten. I have never heard a parent say, “Gee, I wish we hadn’t waited a year.”

    I wish the education thinkers would stop trying to ascribe motives to parents’ decisions. It is not true that all low SES parents have little interest in education. The number of parents trying to get into charters proves that’s not true. It also isn’t true that all parents in affluent suburbs are trying to game the system.

    However, if it seems to be true that students in affluent suburbs are doing better than students from less affluent backgrounds, it would be useful for reformers to look at the actual practices in the suburbs, with an eye to finding something useful. Maybe the students who are redshirted aren’t at the tippy top at the end of high school–but maybe being near the average is much better than they would have performed had their parents rushed to enroll them according to the calendar, rather than their readiness for school.

    Rather than trying to persuade parents who have the power to choose that the industrial conveyor-belt model of education should trump their knowledge of their children, it might be worthwhile to consider starting a transitional prekindergarten program for low SES kids who aren’t ready to jump right into school. If your main objection to “redshirting” is that it “hands the children of the affluent an unfair advantage,” take action to make matters more equal.