When holding your child out means giving him a boost up

September 20 | Guest post by Kelli Kirk

Recently the New York Times published an article discussing "redshirting," the practice of holding a child out for an extra year prior to entering kindergarten. Here's one parent's experience with the concept…

School bus
Photo by Flickr user Kevin Dooley, used with Creative Commons license.

I spent this spring and summer uncomfortably sitting with my decision to hold my five year old boy back from Kindergarten until next fall. If his birthday were August I would have felt more sure-footed in this decision, but his birthday is the end of May. This means he has been five for a couple months already, and this also means he will be seven the last week of Kindergarten.

As the school year ended this past spring I began to feel that he might not be ready. When I visited his pre-K class he was one of a few children who were not interested in engaging with the group, and also one of two of the youngest. Bright, quiet, and a little dreamy, he struggles with following directions and often will simply walk off to play at his own pace. He is drawn to younger children just as his is peers.

At his end of the year Pre-K Caterpillar Graduation Potluck (rule: everything requires a Graduation Potluck), he walked across the stage with much pomp in his new Spiderman pajamas to receive his gift — we are currently celebrating at least two years of his wearing pajamas almost every day.

After his beloved teacher hugged him, he was momentarily confused about where to sit. I heard an aggressive older boy in his class yell "Not THERE! You're NOT supposed to go there! Over HERE! NOW!" and my son hurriedly shuffled over with his bag and squeezed himself onto the stair riser to sit where he was told. I thought to myself, "If he goes into Kindergarten this year there will be a boy like that in every grade, in every class, for him to contend with, and he'll be amongst the youngest."

My older girl attends the school into which my son will enter. It is an inner city South Seattle public school which I can proudly say is in the middle of the most diverse zip code in the United States. Our school is an "alternative" school, although the District has most recently taken to calling it "K-8". I'm not entirely sure what this means in the language of changing dictated monikers from the organizational upland, but what I can say is: The school is non-traditional and there is a strong component of parental influence to the school. Also, informally, I'm going to wing it and say we likely amongst the highest percentages of artists, published authors, and families of mixed ethnicity and GLBT parents of any other public school in the city. I love our school and I am proud to be a part of it.

My school-aged girl writes poetry, makes amazing art, sings, and puts her hands in the dirt to garden every single week at school. These things are precious and dying on the vine in public schools today. At our school we don't shy away from social justice and activism and in fact, we embrace it as a community.

Some of the criticism I have read about redshirting involves a perception that parents holding children back are attempting a "leg up" toward academic and standardized testing success. I guess the logic here would be: hold your kid back and you'll have the biggest, smartest, most competitive mutha-flipping kid around and therefore be able to smash the 2nd grade competition where they stand.

Honestly, this part really hadn't occurred to me.

What has occurred to me is this: by the time my daughter was in first grade, even at a West Coast non-traditional school where she gardens each week and writes poetry daily, the testing pressure was in full force. She came home crying this past year in third grade because of stress over standardized tests. As I looked at her spring report card even I noted, "Hmm…sixth percentile drop for her in 2009/2010? What happened?" I have to remind myself to snap the hell out of it.

Grade school is a different place than it was in the 1970s when I showed up in my Toughskins with my metal lunchbox. Even with taking measures to shelter and protect my kids from the ballooning academic pressure, the intensity around testing and competition enters the grade school experience like a toxin in the atmosphere. Standardized testing cuts a wide swath through all aspects of our public educational system today and in its wake lie the victims: art programs, music enrichment, and other "extra" tidbits like fostering creativity and critical thinking.

So, earlier this week I formally notified the district that my son will not be attending school when it starts in September. I am going to give my son another year to be five and quirky and free of public school pressure.

I am giving him a year to wear his bunny mask around if he wants.

I'm giving him one more year to go to school in Spiderman pajamas all day or walk around the house naked in the afternoon (not that this isn't OK at our house anytime).

My "leg up" for him into the competitive world of today's grade school is: I love you and I am giving you one more year to just simply play.

pinkbunny (1)
Kelli's son happily rocking his bunny mask.

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  1. My parents also chose, at the recommendation of my teacher, to hold me back and have me repeat kindergarten. They did this for two reasons: One, I was among the youngest in my class and therefore not developmentally on par with my peers. And two, we had moved a lot during that first semester because of my dad's job, so I had missed a lot of school. I'm really glad my parents chose to hold me back a year. It did indeed give me a "leg-up", and I ended up doing very well academically throughout the rest of my schooling, even up through college. Good for you for recognizing that your little boy isn't quite ready for the next step and giving him time he needs to catch up.

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  2. This is why I'm so grateful that we had the resources to send our daughter to a Montessori school. We are even luckier that it's AMI-accredited for Infant, Primary, and Elementary programs; we won't need to worry about her schooling again until she's twelve.

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  3. I will be starting a family soon and this school sounds AMAZING!!! I currently live in Bothell Wa but would be willing to move based on the school system. What is the name of the school? Also props, I would do the same thing if I thought it was for the best. For my CHILD, not to how you say, "have the biggest, smartest, most competitive mutha-flipping kid around and therefore be able to smash the 2nd grade competition where they stand". 🙂

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  4. I actually think a LOT of boys would do better to start K a year later. In Texas they start at 6, or they did when my friends were kids.

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    • My older sister was born at the end of December, and was one of the youngest in her class. The school system encouraged my father and her mother to keep her back a year because she was so young. They opted not to and she excelled. Her husband ended up repeating kindergarten because he was so terribly shy, and it helped him develop his social skills greatly. He did okay in grade school and high school, and really excelled in college. Every kid is different, and boys do generally mature later than girls do. Something to think about.

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      • I'm a similar story – my birthday is at the beginning of September, and when I started kindergarten I lived in California. At the time, the cutoff date was in October. Then I went to first grade in Washington State, where the cutoff is September 1. My first grade teacher insisted to my parents that in no way was I ready to progress to second grade due to my age… and that I should be put on Ritalin because I touched her arm when asking her a question. (Wish I was joking on that one.) After my parents insisted on independent testing and brought in reams of my old report cards from kindergarten, my teacher grudgingly allowed me to move up to second grade. Where I thrived. 😉

        I was also one of the youngest in my class (in fact, I had a school friend who was born the day after me but a year earlier) but it worked out fine for me. Today, most of my friends are older than me anyway!

        I'm desperately hoping that none of my future kids are as borderline as me, though – it was a pain in the ass for all of my family, and my mother has told me that if she had it to do again, she probably wouldn't have put me in kindergarten in California.

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        • Can't believe the ritalin story – horrible. But, they tried to put me on it in the early 1970s also when it was fairly new. My parents told them to ram it.

          • That's what my parents did too, with the help and blessing of the school counselor. I'm very glad, because while an ADD diagnosis wouldn't really surprise me, I can cope just fine unmedicated due to the skills I learned growing up!

          • they try putting 1st and 2nd graders on adderall all the time where we are…. actually when i was in high school i baby say a kid (who actually had issues, long story short one time he actually chased me into a bathroom and stabbed holes in the door with knives to get to me) who was heavenly medicated in kindergarten

            if they ever say to me my children to be medicated, i won't stand for it…. i was on adderall in high school and it never did me any good, it literally just drove me nuts

  5. My son turned 5 in August and he just started Kindergarten.However, before the school year began I had a meeting with the principal and expressed my desire to have my son attend Kindergarten twice. She agreed. So that's the plan.I considered keeping my son home, but I think getting the information twice is the best possible solution for my son. My baby gets an extra year to mature before 1st grade and we all get to relax, knowing this year is the "trial run". Best of luck to all the Mommas of "late birthday" boys!

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  6. My birthday is in nov. just 1 month shy of the cut off date in our state…. I was one of the oldest and i loved it…. yet there were people in my grade i was more than a year older and i never felt that they were well, on the same level as me even in high school, they were more immature that i was (and that says a lot)

    my first son's birthday is in august and he's only 1 but i've already decided whats a month and a half older than everyone else…. i've decided that he'll attend school a year late…. as for my pending child the magic number is to get to October first (which i am about to pot now) so starting school a bit older isn't really a choice i have to make or fight for

  7. Twenty years ago, my parents had my brother wait a year to go to kindergarten – it was probably the best decision for him! Thanks for sharing. =)

  8. I can totally see where the author of this post is coming from. And the testing during early grades is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. But I've got to say that I worry what a trend of holding back boys will mean for all kids, overall. One year of development makes a huge difference. Many 5 year old children are ready to begin kindergarten, but putting them in a room with 6-7 year old children puts the teacher and the kids in a tough spot. The only alternative is to change the norm regarding kindergarten age and I'm not sure that's a good idea. My main concern is that the choice to hold a child out for a year is not a choice available to all parents. Children of low-income parents (who cannot afford to have a child out of public school for an additional year) will be disadvantaged by this, even if the parents' intent is not to give their child a "leg up" but to meet their developmental needs. What to do?!

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    • It all concerns me. But, with the "no child left behind" pressure, all I can do is deal with the one young child i have. My daughter turned 6 just weeks after starting Kindergarten and she's had a wonderful experience.

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  9. I also waited an extra year to send my son to kindergarden. His birthday is September 1st. He was pretty shy when he was 5 and I think waiting a year help him grow pit of his shell a little more. Also, with full day kindergarden it was good to wait another year to make sure he could sit and get work done. I have talked to a lot of parents that have waited an extra year and nobody has ever regretted it.

  10. i'm "homeschooling" my little one at least until 6. I figure she'll learn how to read and learn her alphabet and all that stuff that kids learn in kindergarten without being forced to be in such a structured environment at such a young age.
    and if she's ready for 1st grade at 6 – so be it, but if she's only ready for kindergarten, she'll go there.

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  11. Kids don't HAVE to go to school until age 7 in Finland (one of the best school systems around the world). They do start pre-school/daycare type stuff pretty young, and it is much more professional than many American daycares, but it goes to show you that age 5 isn't a "magic" number.

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  12. We kept my 2nd son in K twice and it was really good for him. I think that the 'keeping them back to give them an advantage' is overblown. Most parents look at the info objectively and make a decision based on their child. I'm glad that my son had the opportunity to go through K twice because he was socially ready to be in school and since we got the same wonderful teacher, whom he loves, he got to be her 'helper' and show the others how things worked in class, etc. He is in 1st this year and things are going well. He was soooo excited to bring home homework yesterday. This excitement was what we wanted to keep for him.

    As for the testing, I helped my 3rd grader out last year by letting him know that the 'testing' didn't count for his grade. He was, of course, shocked by that. I reminded him that he still needed to do his best, because that shows his integrity, but that the test was really for the school and to show how his teacher was doing. Since he liked his teacher, I used this to also encourage him to do his best to show how well his teacher teaches. But, it did relieve some of his fears about the actual test, knowing that his mistakes weren't going to affect his grade. Then, we talked through the results once we got them, so he could see how 'normal' he was.

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    • "he still needed to do his best, because that shows his integrity, but that the test was really for the school and to show how his teacher was doing"
      Like this a lot.

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  13. This post kind of hit a personal chord. I was one of the kids born near the "cut off" date to enter schooling. Many of my friends were as well. Our school district had mandatory physical and mental tests that we had to pass. When I was 5 I failed most of the physical tests (i.e. catching a ball, walking a balance beam, phyiscal attributes like height and weight) and passed all the mental. My parents were advised to hold me back a year but they enrolled me anyway. Same thing happened with my friends who were near the cut off date. After all the worry the school district put on my physical drawbacks (i.e. short stature and clumsy)I'm now 26 and I'm still short and I'm still clumsy. That's just who I am naturally. Did I get teased about it? Yes. Was it something that kept me from making friends and achieving academically? No. Believe it or not almost all the students in the top 10% of my graduating class,including myself and many of my friends, were recommended to be held back from kindergarten due to our birthdays and less than prime physical aptitude.

    My sister was the opposite. She made all the physical benchmarks but half of the mental. The school recommended her for enrollment for the school year but my parents decided to hold her back a year. She was never a stand out student academically but she was always very involved and is now in college. I think my parents made the right decisions for us. I guess what I'm trying to say is everyone is a little different and despite the tests that measure your abilities, there is no true way to know how the kid will perform. My parents went with their instincts and that seemed to work out pretty well for us.

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    • It's so true every child is different. For me, the decision had zip to do with academics. I'm not concerned about it with either of my children and frankly I'm bored with the focus on that piece. For me personally, as a parent, I'm concerned more about social emotional development and readiness. Still your story brings up a good point which is – – as parents, it's important to listen to your instinct.

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  14. As a public school teacher, I can say that the current trend is to NOT retain children, regardless of their abilities. This means that many children who are not developmentally ready to leave kindergarten or first grade are "pushed forward." This is often ridiculous since developmental psychologists point out that there is a range for acquiring skills such as reading and math. Your child is NOT NECESSARILY BEHIND just because they didn't read fluently until the end of 1st grade or even the beginning of 2nd grade. As parents, we must advocate for our child, in both directions. If you think they're ready to move on, push for it. If you think they need another year, push for it. Most of the teachers I know are more than willing to work collaboratively with parents in order to help their children be successful. Thank you for this post! We as teachers want nothing more than to see parents actively involved in their child's education.

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    • As a first grade teacher I completely agree. I feel awful for the children that I cannot promote to 2nd because they are too far behind. This is often caused because they are not developmentally ready. Then, during their second go round, they are stars and it really clicks. First grade is a tricky grade. They are learning so much, so fast.

      I am not against medication though. Although, I only support it in extreme cases. I have had children in my class who are truly miserable until they become medicated. On 3 separate occasions I have taught children who were able to control themselves once on meds. They went from being lonely and friendless to having friends. It positively impacted their self-worth. Like anything these situations need to be closely monitored by a physician. Children should never be given meds just because they are excitable or rambunctious.

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  15. It's so true how different just-barely-five-year-olds and almost-six-year-olds can be. And even in the exact same age range, how different individual kids can be! I think one of the responsibilities of being a parent is to be aware of what's best for YOUR individual kid–whether they thrive on challenge and structure and being around older kids, or whether they settle down and become the responsible one around younger kids. The school and grade system is set up on a one-size-fits-most model, and it's up to families to go beyond that and decide what's best for their individual child(ren).

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  16. Thank you for writing this. My son just turned two at the end of June and I'm already being bombarded with questions about pre-school next year. If I had to decide right now it would be an emphatic No! He's simply not ready. At the moment he's a little shy and prefers to play one on one rather than in groups. He gets anxious in groups of kids he sees all the time, I can't imagine what a new group of kids would do to him. I have some time to decide but it really makes me wonder why it's become so important to place our children in these programs at such young ages. Is it so bad to wait until they're ready rather than using a date on the calendar? Don't get me wrong. I think these programs are great if your child is ready. I have a friend whose little boy is the same age as my guy and he'd go to pre-school now if he could and he'd love every minute of it. I wish knowing that made me feel better instead of worse, like there is something wrong with my little guy or that I've done a bad job and that why he's not as social as his peers. I wish we were more open to doing what is right for the individual child instead of shoving them all into the same box because of their age.

  17. my son is four and will turn five on october 4. we started him in k (because according to ny state regulations, as long as he is five before december 1st, he can attend) and i am kind of regretting my decision now. he is the youngest and smallest in the class and, since he did not attend a formal preschool program, he is not used to the worksheet-after-worksheet system they have going. kindergarten is definitely not what it used to be since they are already working on reading words and we are two weeks into it.

    my husband and i have discussed the matter and, if it comes down to it, he will repeat kindergarten. this will be practice in a school setting and, if he is not ready to move on, we'll simply have him put in a different classroom and let him repeat it. he will be about the right age too; five going on six.

    for parents hesitating about sending their kid, send them! at least let them try! i know my son is doing his best and is gaining something from the program. if he repeats k, he won't be behind and he will be told that it's just for more "practice".

  18. Where I grew up, children went to school depending on the year you were born. January 1st-December 31st. I was one of the youngest children in my class being born in November. I started kindergarten at age 4.
    My mother had the option to send me the following year at age 5, but I am so grateful she never. I excelled at such a young age, and skipped over a grade level.
    Each child is different, you really have to know your child and their little personalities to know when is the right time to send them.
    There is no need to rush them, but if you know they are ready, no need to hold them back.

    1 agrees
  19. I try not to comment too much because I'm not a mama, but I wanted to share my prospective. But before I do let me put out the disclaimer,every parent does what they think is best for their child.
    I did not start Kindergarten before I was age 6. I really regret not starting when I was age 5. Primarily because I was well ahead of the other students academically. (I did not need the academic 'leg up', I was reading in preschool.)
    Being ahead academically may have contributed in part to my lack of social skills.
    I was friends with people in the grade ahead of mine. I found it hard to make friends with people that questioned why I tipped my shoe so the rocks came out faster. I was more than ready academically, but needed a lot more socializing before kindergarten started.
    So while each child is different,I'd encourage every parent to look at 'red-shirting' from every angle.

    2 agree
  20. My mother in law did this for my husband, because his birthday is in the beginning of October. I asked him once how he felt about that and he says it really made him resentful because he was CONSTANTLY being asked if he failed a grade.

    I try to get him to look on the bright side though, if he hadn't started a year later we probably would have never met, seeing as how we met in spanish class in high school. 🙂

  21. We get a lot of flack because our 4 year old isn't in preschool yet, even though he has a September birthday and so he still has another year to get into Pre-k for a boost. I remember when preschool was basically an educational alternative for parents who needed childcare; now it is like having a freaking degree as a tot (with a bill to match.) My kid reads words and does basic math, and yes, he could use some help in the socialization department… but suddenly the first couple of years of school have become a point of stress for parents and kids that I don't remember them being before.

    As for a kid feeling aggravated by being older or academically advanced, hindsight only gives us the story of what happened and not what could have happened; so to say that a kid was bored and irritated in his class full of younger kids does not mean he would unequivocally been up to speed in the older class. And, nowadays many schools have programs that help kids gain back that extra year if they are so inclined. I have a niece who was held back in the third grade, but is taking classes now that will have her caught up with her peers when she enters high school.

  22. My mom was a long-time kindergarten teacher who advocated for, and developed, a "kinder-and-a-half" program for her school because, especially with the dreadful focus on high-stakes testing in the early grades, she saw SO many kids who weren't ready to move up, but wanted to move on.

    And I have to second the every-child-is-different approach, as I myself went into kindergarten at 4, and was always the youngest in my class, but was fine both socially & academically… I actually think that a no-grade-level system that organizes the kids by their abilities seems much more fair, though rare. Check out this article: http://saving17000kids.kansascity.com/articles/remaking-schools/

    1 agrees
  23. I'm a preschool teacher and have suggested to a few families that their son or daughter would benefit from an extra year at preschool, and have seen children flourish as a result. I use that phrase because I think it is easier for parents to positively explain to the child (and maybe justify their decision to others) by saying "we decided to give x the benefit of another year here before starting school" rather than "I'm holding him back as he's not ready"

  24. I think it is great that it worked so well for everyone who has commented positively about their/their children's experiences of going ahead and starting kindergarten earlier rather than later. Just to provide the alternate perspective: I entered kindergarten at age 4 (late October birthday, working/grad schooling parents) and was completely ready "academically" (already reading independently, etc) but struggled everywhere else. One of my earliest school memories is raising my hand to ask a question and being put in time out because you aren't allowed to ask questions during standardized tests. I just didn't understand what the school environment was about, and was confused and stressed. Then I was sent out of the room for crying in time out, and then sent home for continuing to cry in the principal's office. That was 24 years ago and I still feel sad for that kid…and the years that followed of being smaller, more sensitive, and more naive than my "peers" who were 1-3 years older than me every grade level. Also, that age difference carries through all your school years (unless you're ever held back). I remember my parents being very upset that when I was 15 and dating someone one grade level ahead of me in high school, that person turned out to be over 18 by the end of the academic year. My partner and I have talked about making this choice for our kids, and he shares that he (with his late-November birthday and stay at home mother) was put in kindergarten at 5-turning-6 instead of 4-turning-5. Of course our childhoods were different in many complex ways, but he was/is just as nerdy and sincere and sensitive as I, and remembers virtually no trauma or social difficulties throughout his years of school.

    1 agrees
  25. This doesn't need to be done every time, however. Here in Ontario, we have two years of kindergarten so we start a year earlier. The cutoff is December 31, the last day of the year.

    My birthday is December 31 and I went in my year anyway. I was quite little in my first year and it showed, apparently. During parent-teacher interviews, my mother was told, "Sometimes she acts more like she's three." My mom said, "She IS three." Oh right.

    But kindergarten isn't everything. By the time grade school rolled around, the difference was much smaller and I always did fine. I ended up doing very well academically by high school.

  26. I think it's really a matter of each individual child and their circumstances. And the more time you spend worrying about the myriad of consequences that your choices might have down the road, the less you're focusing on what they need NOW.

    My parents had a lot of trouble deciding whether to hold my younger brother back (he's another Sept. baby). My mother, in particular, was worried that he would have to repeat her own experience: the teachers waiting to hold her back for a second year of second grade. Labeling herself as a "failure" (yay for Catholic schools on that one) at that age hindered the rest of her academic progression, and she didn't want him to feel like he "failed a grade" when he was old enough to see it that way. She was equally worried that, since I hadn't done two years of preschool, he would compare the two and still feel inferior. My father was worried that keeping him back would be a problem years later, since everyone in his family matured early (early puberty, etc. My father had a beard in 7th grade).

    In the end they decided to let him try Kindergarten (in an attempt to keep a two year gap between the two of us in all things). He did have trouble at first, but over time he was fine. And, considering that both of us did mature physically very early, it was probably a good thing that he did not wait a year.

    On the flip side, I also had a classmate (K-12) that had been held back to enter my grade in order to give her that "leg up". It worked, and she excelled to a point where our teachers were always talking about having her skip forward. The pressure and stress of always being the "best" academically led her to fail out of her freshman year of college. ::shrugs::

    Everyone's different, and I think making the best decisions for your kids NOW is more important than worrying about whether there are advantages or disadvantages later.

  27. First off, many have mentioned how boys are "developmentally behind". As a group, boys are caught well caught up to girls by this age. (The stats for boys being behind is so slight ON AVERAGE it's not a guideline for each INDIVIDUAL boy and the difference within the sexes is greater than between, as always.) It's a bad idea to hold him back just because he's a boy.
    Secondly, personal experience one way or the other be it good or bad doesn't always mean that holding back was the right or wrong decision. An awkward child will have difficulty whenever they start. I don't mean that holding back is a bad thing but it's not some kind of magical protector against school difficulty.
    My personal experience, I was started early to kindergarten but held back to "repeat" kindergarten after I was deemed "too slow" for 1st grade. End the end it doesn't really make a difference but the reason I was slow is because I was (am) a cautious, perfectionist child not because I couldn't do the work. Instead of holding me back, I could have used some assistance with learning to let go and worry less because that trait hindered me until I was old enough to figure it out myself, as an adult.

    1 agrees
  28. Urban public school teacher here.
    I must say that I'm a big believer in pre-school. At my school ,pre-k is half day and they still get to go to PE, music, and library just like "the big kids". When they come to kindergarten, you can seriously tell the difference. I've seen some kids repeat pre-k and it seems easier than trying to repeat kindergarten when they have a secure place and a social group. But that's just my opinion.

    It's very difficult for schools to hold kids back unless a parent chooses. Many teachers will "push" kids forward because they have to. It makes schools "look bad" to hold kids back so they push kids forward who are not ready. If you know your kid is not ready and/or your teacher believes so as well, YOU have the power to hold them back, not the teacher. It's been very frustrating seeing children who are years behind in their skills because it was too hard to keep them back a year.

    That all being said, I was the youngest child in my class. My birthday was the entirety of three days before the cutoff. The school suggested that I be held back but my preschool teachers told my parents that if I repeated pre-k that I might end up bored and have trouble with school after. They put me in kindergarten anyways. I started at age 4. I am so glad my parents did that, because I was a bright kid who excelled in school. It did suck being the last to drive and stuff, but it's not that big of a deal. (My coworkers still make fun of me because the first year teachers in my building are older than me haha). Alternatively, My fiance is a year and ten days older than me, but we graduated high school the same year because his school had a different cut-off date.

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