Delaying Kindergarten Could Benefit Kids' Mental Health

A new study looks into the benefits of "redshirting."
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Academic studies can be fascinating ... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

American kids have customarily started kindergarten at the age of 5, but parents and school administrators across the globe are starting to wonder: Will holding kids back an extra year increase their odds of success? Research on the matter is mixed. Some studies suggest that delaying school enrollment increases test scores later in life, while others suggest that any perceived benefits actually decline over time.

Matching up kids' development and maturity levels with introduction to schooling has proven to be a difficult task. Many parents are taking matters into their own hands by "redshirting," holding their kids back and hoping the so-called "gift of time" will set them up for academic success. An estimated 20 percent of kindergarteners in the U.S. are 6 years old.

As countries around the world successfully veer away from American early education norms and the national conversation heats up, a new study from Stanford University and the Danish National Centre for Social Research focuses on how delaying kindergarten could affect kids' emotional well-being.

The Setup

Researchers used data from the Danish National Birth Cohort Survey, which surveyed nearly 36,000 mothers who gave birth in Denmark between 1996 and 2002 about their children at ages 7 and 11. Participants listed the age at which their child started kindergarten and answered a series of questions about his or her behavior and physical health. The survey also included 25 items specifically designed to gauge mental health. For this section, parents were given statements, like"restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long" and "good attention span, sees work through to the end," and asked to report how true that was for their child in the last six months.

The Findings

After analyzing the surveys, the researchers found that holding kids back one year led to significantly improved mental health at age seven. This positive effect was largely seen in children at age 11, too. Specifically, the kids who were held back had lower chances of suffering from inattention and hyperactivity, two measures of self-regulation. The researchers hypothesize that this may be because children who start kindergarten later experience more free playtime before jumping into the rigidity of school.

Keep in mind, however, that the sample was made up of Danish children, so it's unclear how applicable these findings are to kids in the U.S. Also, according to the researchers, the effects were "most pronounced among children with higher-earning, better-educated parents," so these findings may only apply to a very specific, privileged demographic.

The Takeaway

By demonstrating that delayed schooling can boost a child's self-regulation, these findings support a major theory behind "redshirting" -- the more time children get to play, the better. In fact, past research has singled out extended playtime as one of the best methods of boosting a child's self-regulation (not to mention, his or her creativity, reasoning and ability to regulate emotions).

With schools increasingly focusing on testing, rather than playtime, it's easy to see why parents want to give their children the "gift of time." As the researchers put it: "Children who delay their school starting age may have an extended (and appropriately timed) exposure to such playful environments." Still, there are plenty of studies which suggest negative outcomes of "redshirting," like decreased long-term educational attainment, especially for children from lower-income families.

Until enough conclusive research on the topic is done, it's up to individual parents to figure out how to "appropriately" time their kid's entrance into kindergarten.

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