Redshirting: Does Holding Kids Back Really Help Them Excel in School?

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Of all the things parents do to boost the odds that their child thrives at school, redshirting -- the practice of holding your child back a year before they start school -- is among the most controversial. Here's how it works: if your child's birthday is near the cut-off point for enrollment in school (often September 1 or January 1), that will mean your child will likely be one of the youngest in his class. And this leads parents to fear that their child may flounder amid his more mature peers. Hold him back a year, on the other hand, and he'll be the oldest in class. Problem solved! Except it's not that easy.

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While not all states or schools allow redshirting, parents are taking advantage of those that do. According to a recent study by the University of Virginia, between 4 and 5.5 percent of kids are redshirted, and put off entering kindergarten by a year, although numbers range as high as 20 percent in affluent areas. And while parents may logically assume that their actions help give their kids a leg up in school, not all researchers agree it's a good idea. 

In one study following Norwegian children from birth, kids who started school a year later had lower IQ scores than their younger peers; by age 30, they earned less income as well. In another study of Canadian elementary schools, first graders who were young for their class excelled compared to their older peers. A study by Harvard researchers came to similar conclusions, finding that redshirting was linked to lower graduation rates at both the high school and college levels.

How could redshirting backfire so badly? Experts theorize that being the oldest kid in class isn't always stimulating enough, so these kids end up stagnating. Kids who aren't redshirted and are the youngest in class, by comparison, are challenged to rise to the occasion -- and most often do, even surpassing the older students.

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"Kids surrounded by bright classmates raise their level of performance because they are inspired by the high level of talent around them," says Karen Quinn, author of Testing For Kindergarten and co-founder of TestingMom.com. "This will begin a lifetime habit of working hard to do as well as or better than their peers."

That's not to say redshirting is necessarily bad across the board, but parents should consider carefully whether it will benefit their child.

"When you have the option to redshirt your child, the only reason I would recommend doing it is because you know your child has intellectual issues and he/she would benefit from an extra year in a pre-K classroom," says Quinn. "My own son had a diagnosed learning disability at age three, so we held him back. For him, that extra year was exactly what he needed to hit the ground running when he did start kindergarten. But in his case, there was a cognitive reason to hold him back. If there is none, then I don't recommend doing it. By age five, most kids are very ready to be learning in a kindergarten classroom."

Reading specialist Stephanie Brandt agrees that redshirting isn't a good idea if a parent's sole goal is to give their kid an edge. "I don't think parents should redshirt if they to give their child a 'leg up' over their peers instead of looking at the child's individual needs," she says. "But I am a firm believer in redshirting in certain scenarios."

For instance, kids who are socially or intellectually immature are good candidates -- as a reading specialist, Brandt has noticed that many kids with "summer birthdays" entering school young are less prepared than their older peers. "Then they go on to fall behind more and more every year," she says. She even decided to hold back her own son. "He was adopted from Guatemala at the age of four months," she says. "He had difficulty paying attention to stories at home, and had more trouble sitting still for longer periods of time."

Since entering school at the age of six, however, Brandt's son has excelled. "He reads above grade level, and is one of the higher achieving students in his class," she says.

How do you feel about redshirting?

 

Image via Zurijeta/shutterstock

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