Kathy Hardy, Winnetka Community Nursery School Director, says she has always regretted not “buying” her daughter, now 27, an extra year of preschool.
“As parents you can’t help but want the leg up for your child,” Hardy says.
Hardy is referring to academic redshirting, the practice of intentionally holding your child out an extra year before entering kindergarten. Hardy’s daughter was the youngest in her class with her birthday at the very end of August. Despite the preschool teacher’s warnings that her daughter seemed young for her age, often acting on impulse, Hardy sent her ahead.
“Every year until my daughter was 23, I sort of felt that she lagged behind socially and emotionally,” she says.
Hardy has worked with young children and families for over 22 years, and she says she has seen parental concern over redshirting become increasingly more common in the last few years.
Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) support Hardy’s observation, showing redshirting has grown substantially in the last 40 years, now nationally at a rate of 9 percent of kindergarteners. The trend occurs much more frequently in boys.
The Alliance for Early Childhood invited Dr. Samuel Meisels, president emeritus of the Erikson Institute, and the nation’s leading authority on the assessment of young children, to speak about redshirting at Kenilworth Union Church. Many North Shore educators were in attendance, including Hardy. While Meisels has published nearly 200 articles, graphs and books, and appeared on “60 Minutes” to discuss this very topic, he warns young parents and educators that there is no clear answer.
“This topic is really sort of a mess,” Meisels says.
What he means is little data has been collected nationally on redshirting, and from that little data, the conclusions sway both ways.
He references research from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which discusses studies showing that most professional hockey players and CEOs were all older for their grades. He then counters that with research that indicates kids who are older for their grades experience more social problems and tend to experiment with more drugs and alcohol in high school.
His biggest warning against redshirting comes from an ethical standpoint: An extra year of preschool is not free, and not everyone can afford to pay for it.
“This conversation doesn’t take place very much on the South Side of Chicago,” he says. “There isn’t any free or public preschool for 5-year-olds.”
Meisels says that the practice of setting a specific age for all children to begin schooling makes education non-discriminatory and gives all kids more of an equal chance at success.
Another consideration, he says, is the effect redshirting has on educators, who will potentially be dealing with classrooms where children span even greater age gaps and academic abilities.
Reasons Parents Choose to Redshirt
Meisels says there is legitimacy behind parents’ concerns about whether to let their child move ahead to kindergarten, which he blames on inappropriate curriculum.
“Today if we look at the curriculum in first, second, third grade and in kindergarten, it’s roughly a year beyond what was expected a decade ago,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you say, ‘Well I’m not sure that what they’re asking my little boy or girl to do is something that he or she is comfortable doing.’”
Hardy agrees with Meisels that redshirting is quite a tricky topic.
She says that she and her staff have recommended parents redshirt their children, but it is uncommon. Maybe two or three children in her school will be redshirted this year.
However, when the staff does recommend a parent redshirt, she says it has to do with the child’s development, specifically a child’s social and emotional development.
“One of the pros of buying your child an extra year is that they become more of themselves, or more of who they are becoming,” Hardy says. In that extra year, she says children can practice social skills, moving in and out of groups and self-regulatory skills.
Her advice to parents who are not sure about whether or not to hold their parents back is to sit down and talk to the child’s preschool and future kindergarten teachers.
“Where you have raised a child, we have helped raise hundreds,” she says. “Our classrooms are our laboratories.”
Wondering if your preschooler is ready for kindergarten?
Hardy says her school district uses these six skills as a guide to assess readiness:
1. Sits on the rug and listens to others
2. Demonstrates a comfort level when engaging in problem solving, learning experiences and unstructured play experiences
3. Displays self-regulation and control impulses in age-appropriate ways
4. Communicates needs, wants and thoughts verbally
5. Takes turns and shares
6. Demonstrates enthusiasm and curiosity