Parents – worried about their child’s lack of maturity or ability to ‘fit in’ in a classroom environment – often ask me whether they should hold their child back a year before entering kindergarten or first grade. In this episode I review the origins of the redshirting phenomenon (which lie in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and which statisticians say contained some seriously dodgy math), what it means for your individual child, as well as for the rest of the children in the class so you can make an informed decision.
Jump to highlights:
- (01:00) Malcolm Gladwell’s anecdote about the Junior League Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants ice hockey teams that initiated the redshirting craze
- (02:56) Ability grouping is done in early childhood, just like in sports
- (03:59) Parents holding their children back from kindergarten came to be referred to as redshirting
- (10:20) How common is redshirting?
- (11:04) Boys are redshirted at a ratio of 2:1 compared to girls
- (12:18) The maturationist approach of why to redshirt
- (13:05) State support and agenda for redshirting
- (15:10) Teachers tendency to view a maturationist view of development.
- (17:16) The Maturation Hypothesis
- (17:36) Parents redshirt their children to give their child an advantage
- (20:34) Redshirting as a way to give boys age and size advantage and avoid getting bullied
- (27:28) Making a judgement call into what benefits mean with regards to the body of research on redshirting
- (29:24) The evidence of whether redshirting is beneficial
- (35:19) Misdiagnosis of ADHD caused by relative maturity
- (37:56) A year outside of school reduces the likelihood that children receive timely identifications of learning difficulties
- (38:35) Students with speech impairments may actually benefit from redshirting
- (39:22) Redshirted students may have more behavioral problems in high school
- (46:04) Children from higher socioeconomic status are more likely to perform well in tests in kindergarten
- (48:19) It’s possible that the way the teacher sees the child is what helps the child because of Labelling Theory
- (49:46) Opportunity hoarding associated with middle-class, white parents.
- (52:01) Is kindergarten truly the new first grade?
- (56:06) Advocating for Developmentally Appropriate Practice or DAP
- (57:35) Almost everyone agrees that retention has negative impacts on children
- (58:55) Accumulative Advantage
- (01:00:07) Malcolm Gladwell’s proposed solution to homogenize and my thoughts on it
- (01:02:32) Summary
- (01:04:56) Why I think asking “should I redshirt my child” is the wrong question
Books and Resources:
- Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell
- 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Listen to You and What to do About Each One
- School Can Wait, by Raymond S. Moore and Dorothy N. Moore
- 085: White privilege in schools
- 086: Playing to Win: How does playing sports impact children?
- 117: Socialization and Pandemic Pods
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Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting.
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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have an odd person to thank for what has turned into a bit of an epic episode, and that’s Malcolm Gladwell. His 2011 book Outliers: The story of success opens with an anecdote about the junior league Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants ice hockey teams. The point of the book is to demonstrate that personal explanations of success that draw on a narrative of self-made brilliance have a lot more to them – that successful people are the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and opportunities that help to give them a leg up in a way that isn’t open to most of us. In the example of the ice hockey teams in the book (which we’re calling ice hockey for my English listeners, to distinguish it from actual hockey, which is played on a grass field), Paula Barnsley, who is the wife of psychologist Dr. Roger Barnsley, noticed during a game that the majority of the players on teams just like the Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants had birthdays that clustered in a certain way. Roger Barnsley went home and researched all the junior league players he could, and then the national league, and found that in any elite group of ice hockey players, 40% of the plyers will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, and 20% between October and December (Gladwell doesn’t say what happened to the 10% born between July and September). Barnsley said that “In all my years in psychology I have never run into an effect this large. You don’t even need to do any statistical analysis. You just look at it.”
The reason for this is that the eligibility cutoff for age class hockey is January 1, which means that children born at on January 2nd are a whole year older than children born on December 31st, which is a large proportion of a young child’s life. The same effect replicates in baseball and football (which I refuse to call “soccer”), because these also have similar age cutoffs in youth sports.
Then there’s a half page of text that really caught parents’ ears – reference to a study by two economists who looked at the relationship between scores on a standardized test, and the child’s age at the time of taking the test, and the effect was found here as well. One of the authors of that paper, Dr. Elizabeth Dhuey, was quoted as saying “Just like in sports, we do ability grouping early on in childhood…so, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability. And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year, the same things happen, and they do even better again.” Dr. Dhuey subsequently looked at college students and found that students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6%. Gladwell concludes: “That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists. And for thousands of students, that initial disadvantage is the difference between going to college – and having a real shot at the middle class – and not.”
Now those words are almost guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of parents, even though the real problem here is the perception that college is the only path to “having a real shot at the middle class,” who responded by holding their children back from kindergarten when their birthdays were within the last few months of the kindergarten eligibility cutoff. In the U.S., this practice came to be known as redshirting, which is a term borrowed from sports. In college athletics, which is big business in the U.S., athletes are only allowed to play for four years but they might ‘redshirt’ the first year which means they wouldn’t formally participate in competition while they get bigger and stronger. Then they can still play four years after that. But they’re not just sitting out in that year; they’re practicing with the team and getting bigger and stronger, and they wear a red shirt in practice to indicate that they’re in redshirt status. From what I’ve read on Wikipedia a coach can tell you at the beginning of the year that you’re redshirting but it isn’t confirmed until the end of the season, so if the star quarterback gets injured then the redshirted player can give up their redshirt status and still play. So that aspect doesn’t come into play in the academic setting, but the practice of holding a child out of kindergarten for the year when they are technically eligible to attend has become widely referred to as redshirting, and that’s what we’re going to discuss today.
In some ways this was a very easy episode to research, and in other ways it was incredibly difficult. We’re going to aim to answer a series of questions:
How common is redshirting?
Who does it and why do they do it?
What are the benefits of red shirting and who realizes those benefits?
And if someone benefits, who is on the other end of the stick and misses out?
And then in conclusion, what does the preponderance of the evidence indicate about whether we should redshirt our children or not?
Now before we get going on these interesting and important topics, I do want to take a slight detour here to make sure we’re all together and understanding the kinds of data and analysis that we’re working with here. In many ways, this episode was an incredible relief to research because there’s been a lot of interest in the topic, so papers were really easy to find, and the majority of them are based on State-level or National-level datasets.
So often on the show, I have to caveat the findings by saying, “Well, now I do have to warn you this study is based on what five white people in Chicago told a researcher.” or “This study is based on 100 college students who receive course credit for participating.” Here, our datasets are amazing. There are a couple of qualitative studies where researchers are interviewing just a few people, but these add a richness to the quantitative data that would otherwise be missing. The majority of the data sets are produced by State-level records of children’s birth and enrollment in school and standardized test scores with some National-level data produced in the same ways as well, combined with National-level surveys of teachers. Researchers using this data are trying to find out what happens under normal conditions when nothing is being manipulated and find correlations between things they think are related. Of course, the problem with correlational data is we can’t be sure that just because the two factors vary together that one causes the other. For example, we can find data showing that as seatbelt usage increased in cars in the 1990s, that far fewer astronauts died in spacecraft. So should we try to save astronauts life by putting on our seatbelt, maybe not.
And then sometimes States do things like change the cutoff date for kindergarten entry, and that creates what researchers call quasi-experimental data. And we can see what happens when conditions change, and people aren’t allowed to do something that they could have chosen to do in the past. And this can help us to get a bit closer to a Cause-and-Effect relationship. Although these effects may not be generalizable outside the area where the experiment happened. But we do have to be a little bit careful with big data sets. One of these issues doesn’t apply so much to us, which is the problem of having a sample size that doesn’t accurately reflect the population. There’s a nice example in one of the papers and the references about a survey of 2.4 million people, which indicated that Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas would win the 1936 election by a landslide. Now you’ve heard of President Landon, right? If not, that’s because the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won 46 of the then 48 States. The magazine that ran the poll surveyed its own readers who skewed towards supporting Governor Landon, so the poll respondents didn’t accurately reflect the actual population it was trying to measure.
In the State-level data, it’s possible the results wouldn’t be generalizable to populations outside the State, but they do include the vast, vast majority of students inside the State. They might exclude students who opted out of standardized testing, for example, but we have a number of National-level data sets as well, and these National-level data sets don’t necessarily include every child in the country, but they are specifically designed to be representative. So, our data sets are often fully representative of the population, and when they’re not, these are very large data sets designed to be nationally representative.
And the second thing to be aware of when you’re looking at working with large data sets is differences between the two conditions you’re studying can look statistically significant very easily. You could get a result with a State or National-level data set, that’s statistically significant at p = 0.05, which is the generally accepted standard, but which has an effect size that’s tiny and inconsequential to your life. And I always think back to research on tantrums on this topic, which might find that parents who take a certain action when their child’s having a tantrum can achieve a statistically significant reduction in the frequency of tantrums their child has. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Well, it ends up being a reduction from something like 15 to 14 tantrums a day. Is that change meaningful in a parent’s life? No, it is not.
And so one final thing to be aware of in this data is that it isn’t always super current. Even when I restrict my searches to papers published in the last five years, the data they often use is far older, especially when you’re looking at long term effects. You have to look at data from when children were in school 20 years ago, so we can’t be sure that educational methods use then are comparable to what’s used today. We’ll come back to the idea of there being more standardized testing now than there was in the past even in kindergarten, so the educational conditions that were in place when children were redshirted 20 years ago, and they’re experiencing certain outcomes now are no longer in place for your child to experience. So a study might find that children who attended kindergarten on time in the 1980s had better lifetime outcomes, but the kind of kindergarten those children attended doesn’t exist anymore.
All right, so now we’re all square on that. Our first question, How common is red shirting is actually excitingly easy to answer. A pretty good conservative estimate came up with a US national average prevalence rate of four to five and a half percent, which in a way makes us wonder why are we even doing a whole episode on it if it’s just a small percentage of people that this affects. But the national average conceals considerable variation within specific schools and demographics. In one fifth of schools that serve primarily families of high socioeconomic status, redshirting rates can be as high as 15% of all children, which translates to 60% of children being born within the three months before the cutoff for kindergarten entry being redshirted.
All right on to our next question. Who redshirts and why do they do it? Nearly 6% of white children redshirt. But fewer than 1% of black children do. About 2% of Hispanic and 2.7% of Asian children redshirt. About 2.3% of children in the lowest socio-economic status quintile redshirt compared to 6.4% of children in the highest quintile. Boys are held back in far larger numbers than girls by a ratio of about two to one. The most surprising finding about redshirting rates occurred after North Carolina adjusted its cutoff date to enter kindergarten from October 16 to September 1 in 2006 – we’re going to come back to the data on this study pretty often – and the rate of redshirting essentially went to nil. The authors of that study say that these findings suggest that children’s absolute age rather than age relative to classmates plays a dominant role in the decision to redshirt.
Children who had been born in October would have previously been considered for redshirting, but the authors wondered, “Well did parents of August-born children just start redshirting instead? And it turned out they didn’t. For reasons the authors didn’t seem to be able to explain. And the rate of redshirting for children born between September 1 and October 16, was close to zero.
So why do parents redshirt their children? While allowing children’s absolute age to increase before they enter school is one reason which is based on the idea that children need to be mature enough when they enter school to be successful primarily because this increases children’s attention spans, their tolerance for seated instruction, and it improves their behavior. This approach to looking at redshirting has been around since the 1960s and 70s, when researchers at the Gesell Institute argued that children should be entered in school grouped and promoted on the basis of their developmental or behavioral age, not on the basis of their chronological age or IQ. The book School Can Wait was published in 1979 and perhaps this accounts for the fairly large number of parents of my generation who were surveyed about their decision to redshirt their child who report having been redshirted themselves.
In addition to popular books, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm for redshirting expressed in journal articles in this period. Like this statement from a paper in the journal education: “Redshirting is a program that can be applied at any level of the educational system nationwide, statewide district-wide or in an individual classroom with minimal or no extra costs and no disruption of things as they are and with benefit to everyone who is involved in educational systems.” Well, we’ll say more about those extra costs and those amazing benefits to everyone involved in just a bit. Following the maturationist approach, nearly half of States push their birth cutoffs back between 1975 and 2007.
The title of the legislation passed in North Carolina approving their kindergarten entry date pushback, was written, “To ensure that every child was ready to enter kindergarten.” And went on to say that raising the minimum entry age would contribute to “Reducing student dropout rates in later grades” A state representative who co-sponsored the bill commented to a New York Times reported that the State’s relatively younger students’ S.A.T. results look bad compared to older students in neighboring States who are all applying to similar colleges.
So in addition to ensuring that students would be ready, there was the additional motive of saving face on comparisons of standardized test score results. And it turned out there was some money saving that needed to happen as well. The North Carolina General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division published a report after the 2007 legislative session that highlighted fiscal and budgetary actions and noted that the reform would reduce the Fall 2009 incoming kindergarten class by 15,360 students statewide, saving the state and counties combined more than $100 million. Now it was nice that the state and counties save some money but of course that money came from somewhere and it came out of the pockets of parents who had to find other ways to keep their children entertained during the days. Perhaps some of them were enrolled in free preschool but others were in private preschool or their parents had to be out of work longer so they could be home for the children. The State had very effectively shifted the cost burden onto parents in the name of helping students.
Teachers also tend to favor a maturationist view of development and may advise parents of children experiencing difficulties in preschool to give their children the gift of time in an attempt to promote school readiness, which is kind of surprising to me because it discounts the value of their own interactions with children.
And professional organizations of teachers tend to refute this perspective. The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists and State Departments of Education published a scathing statement in 2000 that the National Association for the Education of Young Children endorsed in 2001 and it’s called Still Unacceptable Trends in Kindergarten Entry and Placement part of it read, “Some educators believe that instruction will be easier and more effective if the variability within the class is reduced. There is, however, no compelling evidence that children learn more or better in homogenous groupings. In fact, most of them learn more efficiently and achieve more satisfactory social and emotional development in mixed ability groups. The primary consideration should be what is best for young children, not institutions, politicians or professionals. Children do not benefit from retention or delayed entry or extra year classes. The case has been made that children are placed in double jeopardy when they are denied on highly questionable premises, the same educational opportunities as their peers. Belief in the pure maturational viewpoint underlies many of the deleterious practices described in this paper. The adult belief that children unfold on an immutable timetable however appealing cannot be over generalized to intellectual, social, linguistic and emotional development. A responsive success-oriented kindergarten curriculum and a well-trained teacher are bound to have a powerful effect on young children’s learning. children come to school as competent, naturally motivated learners. One of the school’s critical responsibilities is to ensure that these characteristics are maintained and strengthened, not destroyed. The issue is not whether to keep children with age mates heterogenous – multi-age grouping can stimulate and support children’s development – it is whether we can continue to uphold practices and programs predicated on failure.”
So in other words, it is the teachers and the schools’ job to see where a child is and to meet them there and sensitively support their learning. And I think where we get tripped up is when teachers can’t do that because their job is to bring everyone into line to homogenize everyone that everyone needs to do well on the standardized tests. So that’s the maturation hypothesis.
Another reason parents redshirt their children is to give them an advantage against other children in the class. So taking on Malcom Gladwell’s argument, although this is usually couched in language about rectifying a disadvantage specific to their individual child rather than engineering or reproducing an advantage. Sometimes this is a reaction to the dominant discourse about the ‘failing boys’ crisis, which pits boys against girls for academic success. Boys are widely described as being behind girls but the achievement gap in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Standardized Test was seven points in 2019, while boys actually outscored girls in math by three points. By contrast, white students outscored Hispanic students by 21 points and black and Native American students by 26 points in fourth grade reading. And white students outscored Hispanic students by 18 points, Native American students by 22 points, and Black students by 25 points in fourth grade math.
So it’s not clear to me why parents are worried about their boys being behind girls, when the real issues here are that even White students’ performance levels are below what is considered to be proficient in reading. And they’re at proficient level in math, when proficient means a score of 250 out of 500, or 50%. And that the discrepancy between White and Asian student’s performance compared to Hispanic, Native American, Black students is far wider. I don’t want to call this an achievement gap for two reasons. Firstly, it fails to acknowledge that very few students are actually doing well on these tests. So it’s not like closing the gap is actually going to solve all of our problems. And secondly, because the reason it looks like there’s a gap is because the skills and abilities that Hispanic Native American and black students bring to school aren’t valued in school or tested on standardized tests. So it’s not that they don’t have skills, it’s that on average, they don’t have the skills needed to succeed in a White dominant culture. And redshirting already relatively successful white boys does nothing to address issues related to who really has the advantage here. But often redshirting is done for extracurricular reasons rather than academic reasons. A researcher who interviewed a sample of 60 parents 59, of whom were women, 90%, of whom were white, and more than half had a graduate degree, found that many parents said their sons were academically ahead. For example, they were reading by age four. The authors of another study hypothesize that parents of children who had lower social skills would be more likely to delay their children’s kindergarten entry, but we’re surprised to find no relationship between redshirting and social skills either as assessed by parents or teachers.
Many of the parents who were interviewed had actually been the youngest in their class and had been quite comfortable with it. interviewee Susan, who was considering redshirting, her son said, “I did for a second and third grade in two years. So I was always a year younger than my peers growing up. I personally don’t think it was a hindrance at all. I thought it was kind of cool. I always thought my smaller height, size, and weight, were always kind of a bonus. I thought it made me stand out because people would recognize I was the youngest and you can still do this.”
Another researcher report is the key difference here is that while girls tend to be seen as socially adept copers who take things in their stride, “middle class, white parents expressed angst at the prospect of their son’s subordinated position in the school’s masculinity hierarchy.” Here are some more quotes from the interviews of the 60 parents. Parent, Ella said in her interview, “It’s hard. There’s a difference there. I always feel like for boys, for Ethan, it seems like it would be to his advantage to have a little bit more size. Whereas for a girl, girls, I don’t know their size seems not a big deal. I didn’t want my son to be in school and be the smallest kid and be super verbal and sometimes a bit mouthy and be the kid, the lone nerd who gets beat up all the time.” Christie said, “You’re always worried that kids are going to tease them if they’re two small or little. We’ve talked to him about it being small. He does ask questions and wonders why other boys are taller than he is.” Deborah said, “And I think of the size thing too, because he’s still even as one of the oldest, one of the smallest boys in the class. So I think if we hadn’t redshirted him, he’d be even smaller, he’d be the smallest. My husband is not much taller than me and for boys, that’s important. So I thought an extra year would give him an advantage. I think school would be much more of a struggle for him if he were a grade ahead.” And then finally, Sarah said, “And so I just didn’t want my boy to be behind just because he was born over the summer and would already be the youngest. And there’s also the physically development side there. You know, I didn’t want him to have this little pipsqueak.”
And so, this corroborates with the finding that children with very low birth weight, who are likely to be on the smaller side as they grow up, are more likely to be redshirted. And linked to this is the issue of sports, which are an important proving ground for displays of masculinity. Because the 59 of the parents who were interviewed were women, there was no discontinuity in their experience, going from school on time, or skipping grades is acceptable for girls when they were young, but it’s not for boys. Here are quotes from three more parents, Hillary said, “Especially with boys and during sports and stuff, it’s always a disadvantage when they go out for sports when they’re really little. I don’t want them to be little, but he’s not. So that’s a good thing.” Deborah said, “The pressure came from my in-laws’ side. They pushed us to redshirt so he will be older and better at sports. I could see size being an issue if you were particularly tiny, but it wasn’t that at all. It was just that he’d be more competitive. He’d that have that leg up.” Sarah said, “You know, my husband’s really into sports. And he hopes that one of our boys at least will be and I mean, I think even in just that area where boys are older and developing sooner and they’re stronger and bigger, they’re going to excel more.”
And the researcher notes that parents frame the notion of struggle either academically or physically as being harmful for boys. The male child’s self esteem is to be protected at all costs, and parents assume that being among the younger children in the class will put their child at a disadvantage that requires the child to struggle while being the oldest is seen as an obvious competitive advantage. Parents often identified leadership ability as an important factor in their redshirting decision, although they often framed it in the negative saying they didn’t want their son to be a follower, which was often then trailed by a sheepish admission they wanted him to be a leader. Participant Mary Ann said, “He had just turned six and everyone else was going to be seven are already was so he became a follower. He was very intimidated and very insecure.” Another participant reported, “So he started Pre-K at age five done at six. He’s one of the oldest in the class, he’s very confident he’s the leader.”
Being a leader is obviously an important component of masculinity as we currently define it, and in addition, these parents wanted their sons to be more popular, mature, independent, and potentially have better future success in dating and better decision making skills related to things like drugs and sex when they were older.
The parents who were interviewed had a universally negative perspective on having their son skip a grade because of any potential upside of being seen as highly intelligent would be counteracted by being younger, smaller and less masculine. The researcher concludes that, “My data suggests that parents are consciously if uncomfortably motivated, at least in part by their concerns and anxieties over their son’s ability to successfully accomplish a dominant form of masculinity.” Which is expressed in increasingly narrow ways; through being in a dominant position, and not necessarily being academically or physically challenged. Parents weren’t necessarily trying to make sure their child was the tallest in the room, but rather to prevent their son from being one of the smallest or shortest boys in the class. And in doing that they made sure that role would be filled by somebody else’s son. They ignore their son’s racial, class, gender and non disabled privileges, and focused on rectifying the perceived competitive disadvantage that they saw.
Finally, besides redshirting to give the child additional time to mature and redshirting to give the child age and size advantages over appears, the third main reason parents might redshirt is to give them what researchers call holdout year experiences, which is to say experiences that will contribute to their success in school, but not all children are able to access. Although I found very few mentions of this in the literature, and researchers studying in North Carolina cutoff date shift found that this was an unlikely cause of redshirting in most cases, and the other two causes were far more prevalent and important.
I also want to observe that the view that most articles on redshirting in the popular press take is they assume each parent is out for their own child’s success and don’t consider that this individualistic view of success might create a disadvantage for another child. An article about redshirting in the New York Times from 2010 began, “After all those attentive early childhood rituals, the Flashcards, the Come on Dora the Explorer, the morning spent in cutting edge playgrounds, who wouldn’t want to give their children a head start when it’s finally time to set off for school? Suzanne Collier for one rather than send her five year old son John to kindergarten this year, the 36 year old mother from Bray, California enrolled him in a transitional kindergarten without all the rigor. He’s an active child. Ms. Collier said not quite ready to focus on a full day of classroom work. Citing a study from Malcolm Gladwell, his book, The Outliers, about Canadian hockey players, which found the strongest players with the oldest she said, if he’s older, he’ll have the strongest chance to do the best.” So, it’s not Ms. Collier doesn’t want to give her child a head start because she does, it’s just that she’s chosen to do it by holding her child back so he won’t be threatened by competition with his children his own age.
Just like Ms. Collier read Malcolm Gladwell book and decided to redshirt, other parents are reading this New York Times article and thinking, “Well, if Ms. Collier has read this book, that cites a study showing redshirting has a benefit, then perhaps I should consider it too.” This attitude of individuality sometimes creeps into academic writing as well. One academic paper I read started out, “What parent does not want their child to excel at school and in life – to be at the top of their class, popular with peers, the star athlete?” Once again, we see a very White-centric view of success. In fact, not all parents want their child to be the best at everything. Parents in some cultures have raised their children with a much more community-oriented view of success with everyone contributing to a whole. As I discussed in the podcast episode on socialization a few months ago, our focus on individualized achievement ends up costing children who are raised in more cooperative cultures in an academic environment, because the gamified way that we teach skills like reading doesn’t incentivize them and actively works against the cultural values they grew up with.
Alright, so now we’re pretty much done with the easy stuff. So let’s move on to the harder stuff. What are the benefits of redshirting and who realizes those benefits? At this point, we have to start making some judgments about what are benefits. In the studies we’ve looked at, improved scores on standardized tests are benefits and that logic works as long as you believe standardized test scores actually measure learning. When if there’s anything we know about standardized testing is that there are two things they measure most accurately: a child’s socioeconomic status and their ability to take a standardized test.
Graduating high school is considered a benefit. Attending college for as many years as possible is considered a benefit which ignores the fact that not everyone wants to or should attend college, and there are many more avenues of finding success in life than going to college. One study looked at completing a PhD as a benefit. And of course, wages are considered a benefit and higher wages are always considered a better benefit.
So what we can see here is the papers on red shirting have the norms of a capitalist culture fairly explicitly baked into them, as well as the idea that there’s a single model of success and the more children we can get to follow that model of success, the better off our children will be. So let’s accept for the sake of argument that improved scores on standardized tests improve rates of high school graduation and college attendance and lifetime earnings are adequate measures of the benefits we want our children to have. Does redshirting help children to achieve these?
Well, the evidence here seems decidedly mixed and I’ll give you the punchline first. “While, some studies do find a long term benefit, it mostly seems to wash out by about third grade, and effects seem to be pretty insignificant for girls.”
Okay, now let’s get into the details. Let’s take a look at test scores first. One study found that an additional year of age of school entry is associated with a 0.87 standard deviation in math test performance increase at a 0.16 standard deviation increase in reading test performance in the spring of the child’s kindergarten year. While a study of the impacts of the shift in North Carolina’s kindergarten cutoff date found that waiting a full year is associated with an increase in test scores on math of reading of about 0.3 standard deviations. Although the actual observed gain was less than this because not all children had a full year to wait.
A study of the National Early Childhood Longitudinal Program data found that children’s test scores at kindergarten in their entry were significantly higher when children started a year older, and their academic growth trajectory was steeper as well into third grade. Now this is a big finding, because in many other studies, the academic growth trajectory for redshirted children is not steeper, which means that while the redshirted children’s test scores are higher than the child who wasn’t redshirted, it’s because the redshirted child is older and not because being older made them able to learn more effectively.
But then another study use the same data set and extended the analysis into fifth grade and found the difference in scores between the two groups was essentially zero. Another national level study found essentially the same result extending the analysis to the eighth grade and finding only a tiny fraction of the difference seen in kindergarten. The difference in kindergarten test scores between older and younger students are on the order of one third for reading to one half for math the size of difference in scores between the richest and poorest children. So if your family can afford to redshirt, your child is already likely ahead of families who can’t. But beyond first grade, data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study kindergarten class of 1988-99 cohort indicates that test scores converge from first to third, third to fifth and fifth to eighth grade being older entry is associated with slower growth in reading and math test scores. This finding is in line with other work on the effects of test scores from participating in head start, or attending small classes and kindergarten, which have positive effects in the short term that fade as children age.
The research has assessed whether there is relatively more convergence between older and younger entrance within schools then across them, as there might be if teachers did something like focusing more attention on younger students. But the evidence indicated this wasn’t the case. And the convergence might be due to things parents were doing, or maybe a natural ageing process in which skills acquired earlier in life are less relevant for later achievement.
A study that examined the changes in children’s outcomes after North Carolina moved its kindergarten entry cutoff found that children born after the cutoff had higher end of grade test scores in middle school were less likely to be retained in grade between ages 11 to 15, and had lower rates of delinquency between the ages of 13 and 15.
But other studies have found no benefit of redshirting even at the youngest ages. One of the match redshirted students with students who entered on time by preschool demographics and other readiness variables, and found the two groups performed essentially the same, which does beg the question that if a year of playing in preschool essentially has the same impact on test scores as a year of academic learning, what are the benefits of academic learning? A summary of the literature between 1980 and 2000 reported that “The weight of the evidence suggests that older children may have a very modest advantage on academic assessments in the early grades of school, if at all, but their advantage is not sustained.”
A study from Australia where 20-25% of all students, not just the youngest ones enter school after they are first eligible in the five states that allow this found that delayed entry does not have a larger lasting effect on reading and numeracy test results. The authors of a study from England observed that the combined age of starting school length of schooling and relative age effects do not have a significant effect on cognitive development, and the age at the day the test is taken is the most important factor driving the difference between the oldest and youngest children in a cohort. If test results were normalized in the early years to account for the child’s age, then test performance can be eliminated as a source of desire to redshirt. This could also adjust children’s perceptions of their own competence. When younger children learn they actually do quite well when compared early to children their own age.
While middle class white parents are more likely to redshirt their children, children and families of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to enter school on time and then be held back a year. As a result of these two sets of actions, by the time the children get to third grade, the proportion of children who are below grade for age is roughly equal across the two groups. The authors of a study on this comment that there’s no socio economic status gradient in the September-August difference in third grade scores, which mean that both redshirting and retention seem to be if equally effective strategies, since children coming from different socio economic backgrounds and at roughly the same educational levels at the time of testing, regardless of their affluence.
Now, I’m sort of in two minds about these conclusions. I have to say, firstly, the fact that you could either sit out an entire year of school or attend an extra year of school and basically end up in the same place isn’t really a ringing endorsement for the effectiveness of what happens in school. But secondly, if middle class white children who are redshirted, and presumably spend an extra year in a potentially expensive private preschool, and still don’t enter school any better prepared to learn than a child who might not have had any preschool experience and just repeated a year of school for free, it makes me wonder whether that money spent on the expensive preschool was wasted, at least if the primary goal is to improve test scores.
Okay, let’s move on to learning disability diagnosis. Children who are older when they start kindergarten are less likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, and other psychiatric diagnoses. A number of studies have shown that children born on August 31 in a district with a September 1 cut off who would be the youngest in their class are much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born on September 1 who were the oldest in their class. The researchers say that “Because ADHD incidents should not discontinuously change around the school entry birth date cutoff. These findings imply significant misdiagnosis of ADHD caused by relative maturity.
Worryingly, ADHD diagnoses are often made by comparing an individual’s child’s behavior with that of their classmates, rather than to an absolute standard. So when the average age of children in a class increases, ADHD diagnoses also increase but not uniformly. Younger children’s age appropriate behavior now looks abnormal. And a redshirted child who is older and might actually have ADHD may not receive a diagnosis because they’re still coping better than the younger classmates. A National-level study estimated that moving the kindergarten cutoff date from December 1 to September 1 increases ADHD and ADD diagnoses by about 25% in the children who weren’t affected by the date shift because these children are younger relative to their classmates.
In a large study of children who have ADHD, academic redshirting did not have a substantially meaningful impact on math or reading achievement, suggesting that the gift of time does not appear to translate into a benefit for children with ADHD who are redshirted compared to children with ADHD who were not redshirted. One weakness of the study is that participants just reported that they were either taking or not taking medication, with no information on what they were taking or for how long or whether they were compliant or if the medication seemed to be controlling symptoms or not, or when the child had been diagnosed, whether they’ve been receiving any kind of special services either before or during school.
In a way, the finding is perhaps not surprising though, given that specialized services are available in school to support children with ADHD. It might be somewhat surprising if an untrained parent were able to improve their child’s standardized test results scores more than trained therapists. I do want to be clear, I’m not indicating here that parents are not capable of supporting their ADHD diagnosed children’s learning, because in many cases, they can do this more effectively than happens in school. But when the measure of performance is the standardized test, it would surprise me if the findings showed that an extra year out of school was a benefit.
Another study of children in North Carolina over a three year period found that of children with cognitive disabilities, those who redshirted scored about a third of a standard deviation lower on math and reading scores compared with students with cognitive disabilities who entered school on time. Overall, the research has concluded the year spent outside of school reduces the likelihood they will receive timely identifications of learning difficulties and support for these and that parental efforts might be better spent earning to pay for the extra support the child will need rather than staying out of the workforce when free kindergarten is available. Once again, I do want to emphasize this is the case when results on standardized tests are used as the measure of success.
On the flip side, students with speech language impairments who redshirted actually had stronger math and reading achievement in one study compared with on time entry students with speech language impairments, and these students may actually benefit from an extra year before school starts to develop foundational language and literacy skills.
Moving on to social skills. Opponents of redshirting argue that older children may be treated as if they’re less capable than younger students in the same grade by teachers or classmates. And the oldest students may feel awkward about reaching puberty before their classmates. Although some researchers argue this is only an issue for girls who might draw “unwanted attention for reaching puberty before their classmates.” Presumably boys reaching puberty before classmates is less of a problem since puberty solidifies their masculinity and thus their advantage in the classroom.
A study using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 which tracks a cohort of eighth graders through young adulthood, in which the researchers selected for its rich selection of outcomes during that timeframe because there is no longitudinal data that tracks students from kindergarten to adulthood, found there were no differences in behavioral outcomes for redshirted students. These authors cited another paper that used a more complex measure of parents perception of behavior problems and reported that redshirted students have more behavioral problems in high school, which might be because they’re older than their classmates and they’re bored.
When we look at high school completion, a study of over 50,000 people who took the National Survey of income and Program Participation found that starting school a year later decreases the likelihood that a male completes High School and has roughly no impact on female educational attainment. The higher rates of school dropout were also found in a study that looked at the changes occurring after North Carolina shifted its kindergarten cutoff date, and it found that children born just after the cutoff date were also more likely to commit a felony events by age 19. And these outcomes are possibly due to the fact that children born after the cutoff date have a longer exposure to the legal possibility of dropping out. In other words, they passed the age at which they could legally dropout earlier, which means they have to suddenly want to be in school rather than being compelled to be there.
Looking at university attendance, children born in August maybe about 1.5% less likely to continue into higher education at age 18, or 19. But if they attend university, those younger children born in September, are about two and a half percentage points more likely to complete their degree. So Dr. Dewey, who’s quoted in Outliers, as describing the difference in rate at which younger children attend college is probably correct, but that’s only half the story. Joining the ranks of the middle class isn’t more likely if you get into college, you actually have to complete your degree as well. One set of researchers who found a similar outcome hypothesize that younger students are slower to develop social skills like self esteem and leadership, which leads to lower returns to effort in social activities for younger students, who then instead focus more attention on studying and perform better at university.
Consistent with this finding, the authors cite a study on first year university students in Italy, which found the youngest students are those with the least active social lives, particularly regarding romantic relationships. And in a study on the results on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test, that youngest students spent more time on homework. Of course, it’s also possible these students are studying more because they find the work more difficult because they have fewer months of development. We can’t know that they’re studying at a higher level just because they’re studying more. And of course, all of this rests on the idea that a college education is essential to a successful life.
Now looking at earnings, the study of 50,000 people who took a survey of Income and Program Participation found that males who were redshirted may have higher monthly earnings, although they said their estimate was imprecise. Remember, though, that this study was the one that found that redshirted males were less likely to complete high school. Given that normally completing high school is associated with higher earnings, we would expect to see the opposite finding and the researchers don’t explain the discrepancy. We do know that delaying kindergarten entry results in delaying earnings by a year although to the extent that delaying entry improves educational outcomes, the delay may be offset by higher wages for the fewer years the adult works.
A couple of other studies using census data as well as one using data from the National educational longitudinal study of 1988 found the opposite, that adults who started school or younger age have higher wages later in life, possibly because they’re likely to gain more years of education before they can legally drop out. Or because on time school entry exposes children to formal learning for more years, which results in superior cognitive skills and from there to higher wages. These authors found that students with some of birthdates have higher average earnings later in life than students with winter birthdates.
One study looked at the National Science Foundation survey of earned doctorates, which is an annual survey of new PhD holders in the US. And I was amused to see that 93% of the people who received the survey responded, these folks certainly understand the value of a representative dataset. The authors found that after they controlled for discipline specific variation, there was no evidence of the impact of relative age of people earning the PhD and no influence on their immediate postgraduate salary. But they also estimated a relative salary loss of over $138,000 in lifetime earnings for Red Shirted individuals who earned the PhD assuming the income increases at a rate of 3% annually, because they missed that first year of earning early in their career which compounds over a 30 year period.
The same authors note the Gladwell his reliance on draft selection as the outcome variable is incomplete and misleading because it’s actually the youngest Canadian hockey players who have relatively longer careers in the NHL, and participate disproportionately in elite levels of competition like all star games and Olympic teams.
So you can pick a certain variable outcome like draft selection, or kindergarten test score achievement and think that you found the answer. And if your goal is to get drafted, which would be a pretty great goal for a lot of people, or to do well on his kindergarten, standardized test, then you’re doing the right thing by red shirting. But if your goals are different, then you can’t assume that the benefits that you saw at one level will still be there at another level.
Moving on to health. The study of 50,000 people who took the survey of income and program participation found that males who are redshirted were less likely to report that they were in fair to poor health and more likely to report They were in excellent or very good health. Although we should say self reported data on health isn’t the most accurate way to get this information. No differences were found for females. The researchers weren’t sure how red shirting affects health, they hypothesized it could be through increased earnings. But again this result is inconsistent with the finding that Red Shirted males were less likely to complete school. The research was pointed to a study in Denmark, which found that red shirting improves mental health outcomes at age seven and that effect persisted to age 11. This could be a potential driver. they assess the relationship between ADHD treatment and self reported health in a different data source, and estimated that ADHD could explain as much as 46% of the benefit of red shirting on improved health impacts in their study. Although they acknowledged this was a correlational estimate only and could be overestimated. Even so this points to a massive problem of Miss diagnosing normal attentional problems as a disease that needs to be treated. If we start Miss diagnosing ADHD then any potential health advantage associated with redshirting would be much smaller.
Taking a quick look at impacts on differences in scores by socioeconomic status. and national levels study found that children from higher socioeconomic status are more likely to perform well in tests on kindergarten not a big surprise there, especially when they’re older at time of entry, which may mean that increases in overall entrance age have the professor effect of exacerbating socio economic differences in school performance.
Looking at impacts on differences in scores by race, one of the studies of children in North Carolina found that black girls who had to wait after the kindergarten cutoff date moved increase their scores on both reading and math. And the gap in scores between black and white children fell substantially for boys, probably due to the fact that before the cutoff shift, white boys were the demographic group most likely to redshirt, so white boys lost their aged advantage relative to other groups under the new policy. However, another one of the North Carolina studies found that red shirting contributes to what the research has called achievement gaps between so called minority and non minority students in third grade by as much as eight to 11% for girls and 28 to 30% for boys.
Honestly, I’m not sure how to reconcile these conflicting results with the National Assessment of Educational Progress his testing results for North Carolina, which still clearly show that black students test scores substantially lag those of whites, it’s possible that the relatively low number of red shares his data was obscured in the broader state level data. But I want to be clear, we’re not suddenly looking at some massive shift that equalizes test results between those two groups of children.
Okay, so that’s kind of a summary of where we are with the benefits and the picture is decidedly mixed. So when we think about benefits, another thing we need to think about is who is on the other end of the stick and misses out. Strangely, increasing the average age of a particular child’s classmates actually can positively influence that child’s test results, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that a student repeats a grade in school or receives a learning disability diagnosis. The researchers hypothesized that the older peers positively influenced this student’s achievement but the teachers and parents group decisions about grade retention and referrals to behavior professionals are mostly based on the child’s performance relative to classmates.
It’s also possible that it isn’t the extra year maturity that’s actually helping the child but the way the teacher sees the child, there’s a fairly strong line of research on labelling theory, which is the idea that if the teacher calls the child smart, and even just thinks of them as smart, they actually end up doing better in school by the end of the year and will do better in school than a child who the teacher thinks is stupid. Even a child’s physical attractiveness has had a strong association with the teacher’s reactions to the child. So it’s possible that part of any positive effects that we do see related to redshirting are because the teacher looks at the older child and thinks smart child, and then the child who is younger but entered school on time as not so smart, which impacts the Red Shirted child positively. And the child who entered on time negatively, the smart child gets tracked into the gifted and talented program and may stay on that track for the rest of their school career, getting extra resources and attention and support along the way, which compounds our success.
One potential concern with red shirting is that a child who’s a year older than the rest of their classmates might end up significantly ahead of their peers, which could cause them to get bored and drop out of school. This has a couple of effects that are important to consider. Firstly, parents often identify resources in advance that they can access if this ends up being an issue. One mother in an interview reported that she picked a school that had a gifted and talented program so that if her Red Shirted child wasn’t being challenged enough in his regular class, that he could be pulled out for special attention.
Middle class white parents as a group have quite a lot of political clout at school. And it’s not uncommon for a group of parents to get together at the school bus stop or in a social media platform, where they share information about programs that might benefit them. Then campaign to get access to them. I’m going to quote for an extended passage from one study, quote, it was through informal information sources that a group of parents got wind of the differences in the four kindergarten programs available at school. They organized a mini revolt against what they saw as an unchallenging kindergarten program in the afternoon classes. A number of mothers got together and discuss the differences in the kindergarten activities and how the kids weren’t learning too much in the afternoon kindergartens. wanting the afternoon program to be more like the morning program, they first went to the principal and then to the superintendent to complain. School officials pressed the afternoon kindergarten teachers to incorporate more academic activities within the curriculum. The afternoon teachers responded to parental dissatisfaction through a weekend reading program, in which they sent reading books home for children and parents to work on together. They found it necessary to highlight the academic skills embedded in the activities they were already doing with their students. informally, they told me they were changing how they taught to keep the peace there described feeling bruised and embattled by the confrontation, and that they felt a strain between the morning and afternoon staffs and quote,
This is an example of what researchers call opportunity hoarding, because this diversion of resources toward children who would have been appropriately challenged if they’d entered school on time, and away from children whose parents did what the school district told them was best and who are chronically shortchanged in the first place. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I did an episode A while ago now on how white privilege is perpetuated in schools that goes into more depth on it.
Even if gifted and talented programs aren’t available, teachers are now teaching a group of five-year-olds who might be in a school-like environment for the first time, alongside another set of children who are up to six years three months old, who come from affluent homes, have three years of Montessori preschool experience, and parents who know how to exert their power over the system to get access to resources for their children. This can have the effect of causing teachers to teach to the higher end of classroom abilities, even though it would be more developmentally appropriate to teach toward the children who entered kindergarten on time.
There has been a general lamenting over the years about how ‘kindergarten is now the new first grade,’ so some researchers looked at whether this actually the case. They looked at data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Program, which covered between 18,000 and 21,000 children between 2,500 and 2,700 kindergarten teachers, as well as 3,350-3,850 1st grade teachers over the 12 year span between 1998 and 2010. This huge dataset allowed the researchers to explore the changes to public school kindergarten classrooms across five dimensions; teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, curricular focus and time use, classroom materials, pedagogical approach, and assessment practices. And the results of this study were extensive, but I’ll just give you the highlights, and there are quite a lot of these because I think it’s really important to understand how this impacts the issue of redshirting.
The percentage of kindergarten teachers who reported that knowing the letters of the alphabet was very important or essential more than doubled from 19% in 1998 to 48% in 2010. The percentage of teachers who indicated color and shape identification and counting skills were important rose by 28 and 22 percentage points, respectively. In 1998, just over a third of kindergarten teachers reported daily music instruction. This figure dropped by 18 percentage points in 2010, and a similar pattern is evident for art instruction, where the percentage of teachers reporting daily instruction dropped from 27% to 11%. 18% of teachers reported never doing theater activities with their kindergarteners in 1998, in 2010 that figure rose to 50%. In 1998 only 11% of teachers reported never teaching dance to their students compared with 37% in 2010.
In 1998, 44% of kindergarten teachers reported that they never taught “conventional spelling,” because it was covered in a later grade. This figure plummeted to 17% in 2010. Relatedly, the percentage of teachers who reported teaching conventional spelling on a daily basis rose sharply from 45% to 76%. The same general patterns hold for the other topics like composing and writing complete sentences; composing stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end; place value; writing math equations; and probability. Daily use of textbooks in kindergarten more than doubled for both reading and math. For instance, only 11% of teachers in 1998 reported using a basal reader daily, compared with 26% of teachers in 2010. Substantial increases in daily use of worksheets were also seen, up 17 percentage points for reading and 15 for math.
One particularly important finding was that kindergarten classrooms in the later period devote considerably more time to standardized tests than first-grade teachers did 11 years earlier. In 2010, roughly 30% of public school kindergarten teachers reported using standardized tests at least once a month. This is 2.6 times more often than the rate reported by first-grade teachers in 1999.
Overall, the researchers concluded that relative to their counterparts in 1998, public school kindergarten teachers in 2010 are far more likely to believe that academic instruction should begin prior to kindergarten entry. They are also more than twice as likely to expect that most children will leave their classrooms knowing to read. We observe a corresponding increase in literacy and math content instruction in kindergarten classrooms, with particularly large increases in time spent on “challenging” topics previously considered outside the scope of kindergarten.
Now, this study didn’t look specifically at redshirting, but when we go back to that topic we can see the impact that redshirting has on the first-grading of kindergarten – when you have more children from affluent families showing up for kindergarten, whose parents want them to be academically challenged, it becomes easier for teachers to just go with the flow of pressure from the school district to increase test scores, and pressure from parents to challenge their children. They bring more of traditionally first grade practices into the kindergarten classroom, and parents of the next cohort of August-born children become even more worried that their children aren’t ready for school, so they redshirt, and the cycle keeps feeding itself.
Early childhood educators have advocated for the use of Developmentally Appropriate Practice, which is defined as “teaching decisions that vary with and adapt to the age, experience, interests, and abilities of individual children within a given age range.” Proponents of DAP stress that deciding whether an instructional move is developmentally appropriate depends upon knowing the student, not a standard, and that “Standards-based approaches represent backward movement, designed to force early childhood programs into molds that don’t work with older students and are downright harmful for young children.”
Other authors have said that high-stakes testing beginning as early as preschool has pushed early childhood educators to instruct in ways that have nothing to do with the way children learn and what they’re interested in. Rather than only considering their cognitive development, we also need to individualize their instruction in ethnically, culturally, and developmentally diverse ways. Unfortunately, researchers have yet to identify any “culturally and linguistically responsive, standards-based curriculum that meets the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of all children.” Is it possible for such a unicorn to exist? I’m not really sure. I think it probably depends on how you define “standards-based.” If this means that the subjects and learning outcomes are determined outside of the classroom and school, then no, I don’t think you can have a curriculum that is responsive to local circumstances AND standards-based. The two are mutually exclusive.
So where do we land with all this information? Almost everyone agrees that retention; holding children back to re-do a year of school, has negative effects on children, in terms of attitudes about school, self-esteem, and increased probability of dropping out, but these effects are independent of age. Redshirting is not a guarantee that a child will repeat a grade. When students are matched based on their probability of repeating a grade, younger students perform as well as older ones.
A big part of the problem here is that despite decades of research, educators and policymakers have no clear idea of what makes a student ready for kindergarten. Age doesn’t seem to be an adequate predictor, and while there are a number of tests available they have poor levels of validity (which means they don’t measure what they’re supposed to measure) and reliability (which means your child could get tested today, and again next week, and receive dramatically different scores). These tests aren’t being used for their intended purpose anyway – Kindergarten Entry and Readiness Assessments were meant to inform policymakers and stakeholders about the supports and services young children need prior to kindergarten and to maximize learning opportunities, not as a screening or diagnostic tool, or a tool to evaluate kindergarten readiness programs. As with all standardized tests, success on these tests is highly correlated with socioeconomic status, favoring children from economically advantaged homes.
Malcolm Gladwell points out that people who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. “It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.” The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initially small difference bigger still – and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn’t start out an outlier. He started out just a little bit better.
Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play – and by “we” I mean society – in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.”
Gladwell’s proposed solution is to homogenize – to run three classes in each grade so each student is taught with other students who are exactly their age. But of course, Gladwell doesn’t have any children and doesn’t seem to have spent much time around children either. Anyone who has will know that different children can be at dramatically different developmental stages even if their birthdays are only three months apart from each other, so what good would this serve? And what about the extra preparation that the children from affluent families would have had, which would essentially make the tight age clustering irrelevant?
Just supposing we were able to somehow separate children into three groups each year so they were really tightly clustered around a tight band of ability, we might be able to teach them to pass a standardized test more effectively. But we already know how to do this; it’s called ‘tracking,’ ‘gifted and talented programs,’ and it separates children based on the socioeconomic status of their families and diverts more resources to the children who already started with more. In my mind, the solution is not to homogenize. We know that we all benefit from true diversity – of backgrounds, of ages, and of ideas. Children learn very effectively in mixed-age classrooms that are taught in ways that leverage the knowledge of children who are ahead on a particular topic. These children get to consolidate their learning as they work with children who haven’t yet learned the material. We could teach in ways that don’t create arbitrary rewards like gold stars and pizza parties for doing things like learning to read, which alienate children from families where cooperation and community are valued. Teachers know how to do this, but very often they have little say in the expensive reading programs that their entire district purchases.
The problem arises when we try to teach everyone in the same way, and expect them to all pass the standardized test at the same time, as if they were all exactly the same. Parents often ask me whether there’s a critical period to start reading and doing more traditional school learning, and they worry that their children will be missing out if they redshirt. There are two parts to this answer: firstly, there is no critical period to learn reading. Research indicates that by fifth grade, children who learn to read as late as third grade will read just as fluently as children who learned to read earlier. The problem is that reading is treated in school as if it’s the only way to learn, so a child who can’t read will miss out on the material that’s being covered as well as the skill of reading itself, when most of the time this material could be presented in other ways but isn’t. You might find that an older child is better able to control any impulse they might have to sit still in their seat when they’re told to, which could offset the lack of experience in having done this at an earlier age.
So, to summarize where we’ve been, redshirting may help your child to look like they’re ahead of other children in academic learning early in their school career, but this seems to mostly wash out in a few years. Redshirting does not guarantee that your child won’t repeat a year later on either. If your child has a learning disability, the increased time away from school may result in their issue not being discovered, or being discovered later, delaying the time until they get extra support. Being older in high school may lead to a child being more mature and making better decisions, or it might lead to them being bored and acting out, and dropping out early. They’ll probably have an advantage in sports, and we learned in our episode on how playing sports impacts children that future employers do use positions on sporting teams as a signal of the child’s skills as well as a sense of clubbiness – that if the hiring manager also played sports then they could see that the potential employee was likely to fit in with the culture of the division and the company. To the extent that redshirting gives an advantage even at collegiate-level sports, this may confer an advantage – and while I couldn’t find research on this specifically, there’s plenty of anecdata on parents redshirting specifically to gain this advantage, and even transferring to private school for a year in 8th grade to improve academic grades and gain some size and strength, which could potentially increase their chances at college admission and scholarships for those few children who enter college through this route.
The effects of redshirting on other children in the class, who are younger, and perhaps haven’t attended as many years of preschool, seem decidedly mixed. Redshirting your child somewhat increases the likelihood that the children in your child’s class who entered school ‘on time’ will be diagnosed with ADHD. While parents might explain their decision to redshirt in terms of rectifying a disadvantage for their son, the actual effect is to generate and sustain an advantage. It’s really sad to me that middle class white parents redshirt their younger, smaller boys because they don’t want their children to get bullied in school. The assumption is that everyone else’s child will bully mine, but my redshirted child of course wouldn’t use their size advantage against any other children when they do enter school. It also represents an enormous loss of resources when the only way boys can express masculinity is through being the biggest, strongest leader in the classroom, and that academic work, or teamwork (which might be misconstrued by adults as ‘following’ rather than ‘leading’) or caring for others are not viable paths for boys. To me, asking the question ‘should I redshirt my child’ is asking the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking ‘why do conditions exist that are making me consider redshirting, and how can I work with my child and other children to make these conditions not exist anymore?”
I imagine this episode didn’t give you the clear answer you were hoping for if you are thinking of redshirting your child, but I hope it does give you an idea of what the body of evidence says on this topic, and how it can impact your decision. You can find references for the more than 35 papers I referenced for this show at yourparentingmojo.com/redshirting
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school