Redshirting: Should You Hold Your Kids Back a Year? The Great Debate

When Sara Breuninger and her husband David decided to have kids, he made it clear that they would be holding their children back a year before starting kindergarten. “This was a non-negotiable,” Sara tells Yahoo Parenting. “David was a tall, skinny football player who had a hard time getting to the physical level he needed to compete. He was adamant that having that extra year would give our kids the chance to be more mentally and physically developed when they reached high school.” At first Sara was hesitant, but once David explained how much he believed it would have helped him, “I was on board,” she says.

Redshirting — the practice of holding kids back a year before they start kindergarten, presumably so they will be more mature and advanced than their peers — has become more common in recent years, with as many as 9 percent of first-time kindergarteners being over the age of 6. The term was originally used to describe the practice of keeping college athletes from playing until they were bigger and stronger. The Breuningers were driven in part by a desire for their children to succeed in sports —and herein lies some of the controversy surrounding redshirting. Those against the practice claim that parents who want to give their kids an edge — academically, socially, or in sports — or who don’t like the idea that their child may be the youngest or smallest in the class — are holding kids back for the wrong reasons.

Redshirting: Will your child benefit from being held back one year? (Photo: Getty Images)

So, what impact does redshirting have on children, both in the short and long term, and how does it shape classroom culture, which includes kids who aren’t redshirted and the teachers who are tasked with educating both?

What the Research Says

In 2008 researchers David Deming and Susan Dynarski published a comprehensive review of several studies that showed a strong relationship between age and performance in the early years of elementary school. But the study authors were quick to underscore that “among young children, even a few months’ difference in age can lead to substantial differences in cognitive and emotional development.” In other words, a difference of 12 to 18 months can be huge when you’re five and six years old. After examining the data, researchers concluded there was “little evidence that being older than one’s classmates has any long-term, positive effect on adult outcomes such as IQ, earnings or educational attainment.”

Other research suggests redshirted kids are neither as motivated nor engaged as their peers in high school. A 2006 study of 15,000 adults found that those who began school a year after most of their peers were twice as likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate from college. Results did, however, show that redshirted kids had a slightly greater likelihood of playing varsity sports. Demographically, redshirted kids tend to be white, male, and generally more affluent than their peers.

What the Experts Say

Both the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists and the National Association for the Education of Young Children oppose academic redshirting. According to a joint statement on this position, a child is ready for kindergarten when he or she reaches the legal age at which they’re allowed to enroll. Redshirting “implies children have failed at school before they even begin.”

While some research shows that redshirting may give kindergarteners an advantage in the short term, it also means these kids will likely be driving before their peers, will be 19 and probably still in high school, and enter the workforce a year later, which affects their lifetime earnings, Lori Day, an educational psychologist and former teacher, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Also, parents should consider how difficult it would be to arrange for their child to skip a grade if redshirting turns out to have been a poor decision.”

Holding back students who are ready academically can also cause them to be bored with school. “They are more advanced than the curriculum, which then puts a strain on teachers who now have to educate children of varying levels,” says Day. Waiting a year also often means another year of childcare, which some parents can’t afford. There’s also concern that redshirting can further widen the achievement gap, leaving kids from low-income backgrounds behind. “For this reason alone, redshirting merits more public discourse,” she says.

But what if you truly believe your child is not ready for school? “If it’s only the developmental age of a child we’re looking at, then redshirting makes sense,” says Day. “It needs to be determined individually for each child because for some kids, and more for boys who develop slower than girls, an extra year may prepare them better.” The problem, she adds, is when kids are five and six years old, you can’t always know the real reason they’re not ready for school. “If it’s a disability of some kind, for example, age won’t really matter,” Day says.

What the Parents Say

“My son is developmentally delayed, so it made sense for us to hold him back, giving him time to master the basics.” — Shirley Garcia.

“I held one of my sons back. He would have been the youngest in his class and due to sports, his father felt that having him be the oldest would be a benefit. I saw it as more of a maturity issue. In the end it didn’t affect him either way.” — Nancy Alvarez.

“My 4-year-old is testing for early admission, even though he turns 5 in September. To be honest, his interest in reading and math are strong, but I am not sure if he is emotionally ready for kindergarten.” — Devi Ramachandran Thomas.

“As a mom of a young kindergartener, redshirting was something I considered but quickly decided against. My son is tall and big for his age, but we decided to move forward with the normal schedule. Thankfully his teacher is sensitive to [the fact that] he’s one of the youngest in his class. — C. Castillo.

The Bottom Line

“Every child is unique, and there’s no single universally ideal age to begin kindergarten,” Susan Canizares, Ph.D., chief academic officer of the Learning Care Group, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Kindergarten readiness involves each child’s own unique strengths, skills and maturity level.” If you think your child may benefit from another year, speak with the school you’re planning to attend to learn how common the practice is and how potential pitfalls are handled. “Someone is always going to have to be the youngest,” says Day. Isn’t there a lot our children can learn from that too?