At one point in time, if parents so much as thought that their child would be held back in school, it wouldn’t have been a pretty picture. Apparently, holding children back has become an increasingly popular trend for parents of preschool-aged children who prefer them to be the oldest in their classes–The term for this is redshirting. Children with late birthdays are redshirted by their parents with thoughts that they will have an advantage over their younger peers and ultimately lead more successful lives.
The practice becomes a hot topic of parent conversation every year, but a recent episode on CBS’s 60 Minutes drew national attention to what Morley Safer called an “epidemic of parents holding their children back from kindergarten.” Parents are curious to know if the effects of redshirting their kindergartener will actually boost academic scores in later years and drive their children to soar among their peers. Much of the controversy from the segment derived from Malcolm Gladwell whose best-selling book “Outliers“ influenced these parents to hold their kids back. Gladwell talked about a concept called “cumulative advantage,” the idea that having an edge at six-years-old positions children to be ahead of the game at seven and so on.
Many states are cracking down on redshirting. While New Jersey laws require that children be five by the cut-off date, parents have the right to go to the district to discuss the issue. (Private schools are more lenient with the parent’s decisions to keep children in the same grade). Eight states including New York and New Jersey have varying cut-off dates depending on the district—most cut-off dates are Oct 1st. In a recent interview, early childhood professionals from different parts of New Jersey discussed their standpoint on redshirting. Some are for it, but others dispute the practice with the notion that several factors should be considered before crediting this theory for improved academic performance.
Director Farhang Nematallahi of a child center in Rahway, New Jersey worked with children from infancy to kindergarten ages for 25 years. The last thing she wants is for children to feel rushed into kindergarten before they’re ready.
“I think it’s a good idea to hold students back in preschool if they are younger because when they finally get to kindergarten, they understand better than five-year-olds do, said Nematallahi. I had this experience with my daughter. I kept her back, and she was older in the first grade and more mature than her peers. I didn’t have any problems. She is a doctor now—a Chiropractor. She was always advanced. I’m not for starting a child early because some of them aren’t ready.”
Nematallahi wishes she had held her son back in preschool. “My son’s birthday was a little before the cut-off date, and I sent him to kindergarten anyway. He’s is still successful, but the transition wasn’t as smooth as my daughter’s transition,” she said.
The age that children enter kindergarten isn’t the main focus for teachers working for the Rahway child center, but more importantly, they’re aiming to improve children’s language skills, physical development, cognitive development, and social emotional development in preschool. At such a young age, teachers want to protect children’s fragile self-esteems so they pay special attention to their emotional growth and needs. A kindergarten teacher sharing the same thoughts as Nematallahi agreed that pushing children doesn’t help their self-esteem especially since the No Child Left Behind Act was enforced in school systems, pressuring youngsters to take tests earlier in school years. The teacher claims to notice that a lot of children begin school earlier in age in Linden, New Jersey also.
“Lately, I see more children starting school in an older classroom setting earlier, and overall, they are being pressured to take tests too early,” said the teacher.
Both professionals make teaching these preschool skills a priority so that academic gains are likely in the first grade and so on. Should it be assumed that improved scores are a result of redshirting? Other professionals in different areas of New Jersey disagree.
Ms. Damita, family worker for the State of New Jersey’s Family Outreach Program (FOP) supports parents and staff with educational and child development out of Irvington, New Jersey. She believes in ensuring that each child is equally developed in all domains listed in the New Jersey Department of Education Kindergarten Implication Guidelines, and she says that demographics, culture, discipline, eating and sleeping habits, socioeconomic status, and parent involvement all influence the child’s performance. Hence, doing simple science, math, and reading activities at home aid kindergarten readiness.
“The PTA (Parent Teacher Association) proves that parent involvement in the student’s lives improves retention rates,” said Ms. Damita.
If a child is from a wealthier family, parents have more resources to contribute to their child’s education; studies show that the majority of children who enter kindergarten at six are from rich families, while lower to average income families begin children at a younger age. A local Newark resident and educational professional working in Newark, New Jersey describes what seems to be a rush of parents coming in schools to register children of all ages.
“Most parents are trying to register their children before the cut-off date, even for kindergarteners,” she said.
But in the areas of Irvington and Newark, age isn’t always an indicator of how well the child will perform. To fully determine if children are actually advanced regardless of age is through assessments. Children behave differently at home than they do in school, so it can get confusing for parents, according to Ms. Damita.
“We have children who have already turned five by December 2011; they missed the kindergarten cut-off, but they are older than other preschool classmates,” said Ms. Damita. “When they are assessed with preschool tools–The Denver Developmental Screening Test, Brigance Early Preschool Screen, Early Screening Inventory and other tools—most children’s scores are either average or barely above the other scores. So are they really advanced? She says in all her 23 years of working with children, she rarely sees a child that scores extremely over the advancement level who is five in preschool.
Redshirting has its disadvantages. One of the questions raised by professionals is: will this practice present a challenge for students, resonating Neuroscientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt’s highly quoted article, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College. It says delayed children aren’t as motivated entering grade school, and in fact, their lifetime earnings are reduced by one year. Being sent to kindergarten at age five or skipping a grade in school if students scores are above average forces children to work against competition at their own age level or higher instead of working alongside younger less skillful peers. Wang and Aamodt reported that the benefits of being younger are even greater for those who skip a grade, and more often, those children end up pursuing advanced degrees. Ms. Damita’s beliefs coincide with these points.
“We had a child last year. She left here for preschool at a normal age to go to first grade at a private school,” said Ms. Damita. “They tested her first to see all of her levels. She was reading; her phonics, addiction, and subtraction scores were advanced. The aim is for the children to know more than they are supposed to,” she said. When children are skipped this is what eventually happens.
Furthermore, other studies from the National Education Longitudinal Survey prove that the long-term effects of delaying kindergarten on both “educational and social outcomes” don’t create any advantages for students. And the split in research results for both pros and cons of redshirting show that it works differently depending on the children’s personal situation. One group of children who benefit from it the most are the ones who honestly need it. A six-year Preschool Teacher Myrna Martinez explains why.
“A lot of children enter kindergarten knowing the basics, but socially and emotionally some are still not ready for that structure of a kindergarten classroom setting because they are still developing in a lot of areas, said Martinez who has a B.A in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. “I don’t agree with pushing children long before they are ready.”