Redshirting Your Kindergartener

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

“Redshirting”: The term originates from the world of collegiate sports, describing the practice of keeping an athlete out of varsity competition for one year in order to extend his or her eligibility.

Now the word has been borrowed to describe a growing trend among parents of kindergarten age-eligible children. In recent years, more parents are choosing to delay their child’s entrance to kindergarten by one year. Typically, these are parents of children whose birthdays fall right before the kindergarten cutoff date. Parents may delay entry because they feel their child needs more time to develop socially, emotionally, or even physically. Others may do so to give their child a leg up academically once they do enter kindergarten.

Experts say the decision to delay kindergarten — or not— can have far-reaching effects on a child, ones that play out far beyond the first few years of school.

Social-emotional development and kindergarten

You could argue academics and social-emotional development go hand-in-hand, but on the playing field of early childhood development, this is just not the case. Academic learning and success cannot happen without social-emotional learning providing a solid foundation, says Donna M. Denette, director and co-founder of Children First Enterprises, a nonprofit childcare organization in Granby.

While most parents recognize that the social and emotional development of their child plays an important role in early childhood development, many do not realize how critical it is — especially when it comes to entering kindergarten. Parents tend to focus on a preschool’s academics, how it will help a child learn his or her ABCs, numbers, and colors. Instead of asking how a prospective preschool can help a child learn valuable social skills, like sharing and empathy, parents instead ask what type of academic curriculum the school will offer. In a valiant effort to put children on the path to success in school, parents are putting the cart before the horse.

“Other kinds of learning cannot happen until social-emotional learning occurs,” Denette says. “It’s the difference between knowing how to drive a car and knowing how to follow the rules of the road. Yet we’re asking kids to drive the car before knowing the rules of the road.”

Social-emotional skills encompass so much more for youngsters than simply being able to play well with peers and not have a meltdown when things don’t go their way. Here are some examples of social-emotional skills that preschool programs help children develop prior to making the move to kindergarten:

• Empathy

• Sharing

• Taking turns

• Cooperation

• Problem solving

• Delayed gratification

• Emotion management

• Self-regulation

• Positive conflict resolution

• Self-help skills (toileting, dressing, eating)

• Self-awareness

• Attentive listening

“Children have to be socially and emotionally mature enough to handle all that goes on in the big world of public school,” agrees Lorraine Swanson, director of Miss Tanya’s Nursery School in Westborough. At Miss Tanya’s, Swanson teaches a class specifically for children who are being given an extra year prior to kindergarten, as well as those who turn 5 in the fall.

“Socially and emotionally, a child needs to be able to make their wants and needs known to the teachers and especially to their peers,” she adds. Swanson spends a large amount of time in her class working on peer problem-solving with children to ensure they are socially and emotionally prepared to take part in a kindergarten class of 20 children.

“Going from having one adult focused on you to sharing that attention with 20 peers is a learned social-emotional skill,” Denette agrees.

“Think of all that has to happen before a child even gets into their seat in the kindergarten classroom,” Swanson says. Children must first separate from parents, oftentimes by getting on a school bus, she notes. Then they must find a seat, manage their belongings, and interact with peers on the bus. Once they arrive at school, they must know where to go and be able to ask for help otherwise. At the classroom, they must hang up their coats, backpacks, and find their seat. Now their day begins. Is the child able to tell the teacher if he or she needs help, don’t feel well, or must use the bathroom? This is a lot for young children to contend with, and their social-emotional skills — or lack of — will dictate how successful they are at negotiating these tasks and the rest of their day at school.

The case for redshirting

For the most part, parents who choose to delay kindergarten for their child do so for the right reasons. Children who are younger than their kindergarten counterparts due to a birthday that falls right before the kindergarten cutoff date simply may not have developed the social-emotional skills needed to be successful, through no fault of their own.

For example, Denette explained that impulsiveness is a natural part of being a toddler, and for a younger child who has been moved on to kindergarten lacking the appropriate social-emotional skills needed to self-regulate, it can, unfortunately, look like the markers for something diagnosable.

“What we’re seeing is kids being tagged with ADHD,” Denette says of some of these younger children. Other ADHD markers that may be displayed in younger kindergarten children are distractibility and hyperactivity, which can be attributed to a lack of social-emotional skills or even weak core muscles.

Core muscle strength is typically gained with exposure to outdoor play. Children build core muscle strength as they grow, becoming more in control of their gross motor skills, and interacting with the world around them via jumping, swinging, climbing, sliding, tumbling, etc.

Denette explains that during a typical preschool circle time, children with weak core muscles are putting all of their energy into sitting upright and paying attention. They may fidget, slouch, lie down, and generally be a distraction to the group, as well as to themselves. Children in this scenario aren’t able to learn because they are not free to pay attention; rather, they’re struggling to sit up straight. On the other hand, children with strong core muscles are able to sit upright and thus are able to put all their energy into paying attention to the teacher.

Angela Hanscom agrees. Last year, when baystateparent interviewed her about the importance of playtime, she explained her belief that the lack of movement (swinging, spinning, tumbling) plaguing today’s children is partially responsible for many of the attention problems children have in school, as well as the rise in the number of children being recommended for ADHD testing. Hanscom is the founder of Timbernook, a nature-based outdoor camp, as well as a pediatric occupational therapist whose work focuses on sensory and attention issues in children. She related that more and more, teachers find children fidgety and unable to pay attention in classrooms.

So while it appears there are benefits to giving kindergarten-eligible children that extra year to develop socially, emotionally, and physically, does it benefit them long term?

Beyond kindergarten

“Typically, kids who have extra time benefit,” says Theresa Abodeeb-Gentile, an associate professor and the director of Elementary Education at Hartford University. “It’s not always a big difference in elementary school, but in middle and high school, not having that extra time really shows up.”

From a social-emotional perspective, Abodeeb-Gentile points to issues that can arise involving maturity, social development, and the ability to make good choices in peer groups.

“We’re pushing them out at the other end young, immature, and not ready,” Denette agrees. Upon graduation from high school, these same young children, who may not be as mature as their peers, must make significant life choices related to further schooling, the military, or the workforce, she adds.

From the viewpoint of physical growth, Abodeeb-Gentile notes that these younger children may typically be smaller than their peers, especially during middle and high school, and could also hit puberty later than their peers.

“Teens can be very self-conscious about their physical appearance,” she adds. These two factors can impact a teen’s self-esteem, and possibly have repercussions when it comes to team sports as they compete with larger athletes.

Westborough mom of four Nancy Heffernan delayed kindergarten entrance for two of her four children. She made the choice first for her son, who has an August birthday, and then for her daughter, whose birthday falls at the end of July. She explained that when her son was in his second year of preschool at age 4, she observed a big difference between him and older peers.

“There were two girls in his class who were almost a year older than him. They had fall birthdays. They had their self-help skills down pat and were actually helping him zip his coat,” Heffernan says. “I was shocked at the difference eight or nine months makes developmentally.”

She talked with her son’s preschool teachers and physician about kindergarten. They both told her he could move on to kindergarten, but that there was also no downside to delaying it one year. Heffernan ultimately decided to give her son the gift of another year and has had no regrets.

“In his third year of preschool, he was doing everything the older kids in his previous class were doing,” she says. More importantly, “he was doing it all with confidence.”

Heffernan’s children now range in age from 15 to 20, but she says that as her son went through school, she saw there were many children whose parents had made the same choice, therefore he fit right in — a factor about which she was initially concerned.

The research

Studies show that children with more developed social-emotional skills fare better over time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a series of studies led by Stanford Psychology Professor Walter Mischel concluded that children who had the ability to delay gratification (a social-emotional skill) had better outcomes later in life.

In an experiment known as the Marshmallow Test, 4-year-olds were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they could simply wait 15 minutes. The experiment found that the children who were able to wait the 15 minutes had fewer behavioral problems later on in school and also scored higher on the SAT than their counterparts.

More recently, a study published last October found improved self-regulation (another social-emotional skill) in children who delayed entrance to kindergarten by one year. The study “The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health” found a significant reduction in inattention and hyperactivity (markers for ADHD) in redshirted kindergartners. Similar to what Denette mentioned earlier, older children are simply able to sit still and pay attention better due to more developed self-regulation skills.

Other studies reflect that self-regulation skills are closely tied to academic success. This most recent study, co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Thomas Dee, found that even at age 11, these same children continued to report significantly reduced levels of inattention and hyperactivity.

Help for parents

“It can be hard for parents to know if their child is socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten,” says preschool director Swanson. She recommends parents talk to their child’s preschool teachers and spend time in the child’s classroom when making decisions about kindergarten enrollment. Here are some factors to look for, according to Swanson:

• Do they separate easily at drop-off?

• Do they interact well within their peer group or play alone instead?

• Can they follow the rules of play that emerge?

• Do they often meltdown or cry during difficulties?

• Can they express their wants/ideas/feelings/thoughts/needs to teachers and peers?

• Do they see themselves as capable?

• Do they fit in with their peers, or gravitate toward younger children?

Denette also encourages parents to speak with their child’s preschool teachers, and if they are not in preschool, enroll them in one for exposure. If parents are unable to get their child into preschool for whatever reason, she encourages them to contact their local school district to find out if their child can be screened at age 3 and 4. School screenings are free and very basic. Meanwhile, children can learn and practice needed social skills through play dates, provided parents are not controlling the interactions and constantly intervening, Denette cautions.

At home, Denette says parents can help their preschool-aged child develop social-emotional skills by:

• Playing games together in which children experience losing

• Practicing delayed gratification

• Making them wait

• Allowing them to make mistakes and experience failure

• Having responsibilities/chores

Delaying kindergarten entrance by one year is a complicated decision. There are many factors at play with potential short- and long-term, far-reaching effects. Parents can review the research, listen to anecdotal information, and consult with trusted resources in their community; however, the decision ultimately rests with each parent.

Abodeeb-Gentile sums it up well with this gentle reminder: “Parents need to parent the children they have, not the child they will have in 10 years. Take them from where they are now and move them along that continuum.”