Should You Redshirt Your Child? Tips on Making the Right Call for Kindergarten

One minute, you're certain your child can handle kindergarten curriculum; the next, you're convinced that if you don't give him an extra year, you'll doom his academic career.
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red·shirt (verb)
The practice of keeping a college athlete out of competition for a year with the intent of developing skills and maximizing future potential. Also applicable to preschoolers.

To those unfamiliar with the growing trend toward redshirting children before kindergarten, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. I mean, it's kindergarten for heaven's sake! But if you're a parent, you probably know what I'm talking about. The story goes something like this...

Once upon a time, there was a whimsical land of make-believe, dress-up and finger-painting. A magical place where "work" was a four-letter word, "elemenopee" was still one letter and you couldn't spot a math fact for miles. They called it Kindergarten.

One dark day (after the royal superintendent concluded that Kindergarten's whimsical ways were partially to blame for the kingdom's lackluster standardized test scores), everything changed. Stuffed animals and dollhouses were replaced with math manipulatives and spelling tests. Wooden blocks and PLAY-DOH gave way to rigorous core curriculums and palace-mandated standards.

Once word got out about Kindergarten's abrupt metamorphosis, the parents of the kingdom started to worry that it would take more than five candles on a birthday cake to prepare their children to enter this playroom turned pressure cooker. In fact, some decided it would take at least six candles.

Now the royal superintendent had a whole new problem on his hands -- with so many children entering Kindergarten at age six, he needed to up the difficulty level. So he did. Now the parents were even more worried, especially in the case of boys whose birthdays fell precariously close to the cut-off date.

And that's why -- according to an estimate by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) based on a 2007 report -- approximately 15 percent of 5- to 6-year-olds now begin kindergarten a year late. The End.

As the mother of four kids, all born within a stone's throw of my school district's cutoff, I'm well acquainted with the kindergarten dilemma. As an elementary educator, I've helped guide many parents with young 5's of their own. So you know I speak from experience when I tell you that parental anxiety over whether or not to redshirt kicks in early on. As in, the moment the ultrasound technician assigns our baby a due date (double the worry if the ultrasound also reveals that baby to be a boy). Parents then proceed to fret for the next five years -- one minute being all but certain their little one will be able to handle the demands of the modern kindergarten curriculum (a.k.a. the former first grade curriculum), and the next feeling convinced that if they don't give him the "gift" of an extra year, they'll hopelessly doom his academic career.

Fortunately, the decision-making process needn't be this grueling (although I can't guarantee it will ever be gruel-free). The following tips from the trenches will help you make a comfortable decision for your child and family.

Delay making the decision as long as you possibly can. Preschoolers can change enormously during the course of a year. A child who doesn't seem ready in January may be raring to go by May.
Trust his preschool teacher. Educators see your child daily in a classroom setting and can compare his degree of readiness to that of other children his age, so it's important to take their input seriously. If you feel that the Pre-K teacher is missing the mark, ask previous teachers to share their perspectives.
Consider an educational evaluation. Psycho-educational testing can help provide you with the truest picture of your child's academic, social and emotional profile. Sometimes local school districts will perform such an evaluation for free. Otherwise, you may need to hire a private professional. Community centers may also offer these evaluations at a significant discount.
Think beyond kindergarten. While a 6-year-old may have a seemingly sizable advantage over a 5-year-old classmate when it comes to forming letters or sounding out words, this discrepancy is likely to be short-lived. By the second or third grade, just about every child can read and write, and age no longer remains a formidable factor in determining academic success. Still, if your child is the type to be easily discouraged, struggling in the beginning can have a lasting impact.
Weigh social/emotional factors heavily. While older and younger children tend to even out academically in the early elementary years, it can take much longer for a child to catch up in the social, emotional and physical arenas. It's also important to consider the social/emotional implications of being both the oldest and youngest in a class, and how they might play out for your individual child.
Know the signs of readiness. While every child has his own unique developmental timetable, experts say that most will demonstrate the skills and accomplishments listed below and will most likely develop the others during the kindergarten year. Here are some general kindergarten readiness markers adapted from The Educated Child by William J. Bennett.
Personality: He exhibits an avid curiosity about his environment and is eager to learn. He is confident in his ability to succeed and independent enough to do certain things for himself (or at least give it the old kindergarten try!)
Social Skills: She doesn't need to be a social debutante, but she should be able to integrate into a group, relate to new children and adults and adapt to new routines. A willingness to take turns and share is helpful, too.
Motor Skills: In the large motor arena, he should be able to jump, run, hop on one foot, throw, catch and kick (balls, that is, not other kids). On the small motor side, he should handle a crayon or pencil comfortably, and be in the process of developing potty-friendly skills like snapping, unbuttoning, re-buttoning and zipping.
Language Skills: She needn't be capable of giving the Gettysburg address, but she should be able to effectively communicate with adults and other kids.
Attention and Focus" Five- and 6-year-olds are jittery by design, but most kindergartners can listen to a story or participate in a discussion for 10 to 15 minutes. He should also be keen on finishing the majority of projects he starts.
Other Cognitive Skills: From a math and reading readiness standpoint, she should be able to name numbers and count, identify letters and understand letter/sound relationships. Most kindergarten-bound kids can also compare various objects using relative terms (i.e., bigger, smaller, heavier, lighter, more and less.)
Have faith that children will blossom when they are ready. Despite nationally-mandated academic standards, not every flower in the garden is designed to bloom at the same rate. It's our responsibility as parents to be patient gardeners, providing our children with nourishing soil, warm sunshine and -- when necessary -- ample time to develop their true colors.
Stick to your guns. In the end, what matters most is that you believe in the direction you've chosen for your child and remain strong enough in your resolve not to second-guess your decision. Sure, you'll encounter some rough spots along the way, but chances are that your child will be just fine -- redshirted or not -- as long as you and the school are there to guide and support him throughout his journey.

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