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Delayed kindergarten offers short-term benefits, study suggests

Apr 13, 2017

My husband and I will be sending our youngest daughter off to kindergarten this fall. I must admit, I'm nervous, but she turns five in July and we feel like she's ready for a structured learning environment.

But more parents are choosing to delay sending their children to kindergarten an extra year to give them an advantage over their classmates. It's a widely debated practice known as "redshirting" – a term borrowed from U.S. college sports, for allowing college athletes to delay participation in sports to prolong their eligibility. 

Recently released data from the Toronto District School Board show kindergartners with birthdays in the last three months of the year have more difficulty than kids with birthdays in the first three months of the year when it comes to things like emotional strength and maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills, general knowledge and physical health and well-being.

Dr. Charles Ungerleider is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and former B.C. deputy minister of education. He told BT Toronto:

The literature seems to suggest that it’s advantageous to hold your child back from entering school if they would be young in relation to their peers — and that’s particularly true for boys. I’d certainly advise parents to pay attention to the body of evidence.

Previous studies have also found benefits to starting kindergarten later. A 2015 Stanford University study found kids who started kindergarten later showed significantly lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity. The beneficial result persisted even at age 11. Thomas Dee, a Stanford professor and study co-author, said in a press release:

We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73% for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an ‘abnormal,’ or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure.

But there are also studies that dispute the benefits of delayed kindergarten. Experts argue that redshirted children may be less motivated and that by adulthood, they are no better off – or even worse off – in wages or educational attainment. And disadvantaged students could be most negatively affected, according to The New York Times:

Disadvantaged children have the most to lose from delayed access to school. For low-income children, every month of additional schooling closes one-tenth of the gap between them and more advantaged students. Even without redshirting, a national trend is afoot to move back the cutoff birthdays for the start of school. Since the early 1970s, the date has shifted by an average of six weeks, to about Oct. 14 from about Nov. 25. This has the effect of making children who would have been the youngest in one grade the oldest in the next-lower grade; it hurts children from low-income families the most.

The percentage of American kids entering kindergarten at age six instead of age five has steadily increased to about 20%.

The TDSB data show that although the benefits of redshirting persist into sixth grade, they vanish by high school.