Delaying the start of kindergarten has proven short-term benefits. But is it harmful in the long run?
As the 2023-2024 school year starts across the country, not all kindergarten-aged children will be starting their academic careers.
This is due to academic redshirting.
Redshirting is a common practice in college sports, where an athlete is part of the team but sits out of gameplay, padding out their four years of eligibility.
But what does it mean for kindergarteners?
“It’s a parental decision basically deciding that a child will do another year of pre-K, and then enter kindergarten as an older student,” says Eric Duncan, the director of P-12 policy at The Education Trust.
Duncan says the practice in kindergarten gained popularity from sports as a way for parents to give their children a leg up academically. But it’s also evolved past academic considerations, including maturity and behavioral and emotional development.
How do you know if redshirting is right for your family?
Benefits Are Immediate, But Wane
The limited research on redshirting shows that, while it provides initial benefits to students in the first year or two, it’s short-lived.
“When there’s academic challenges for students, they see them either catch up or outpace their peers in academics,” Duncan says of redshirted students. “But the majority of the research that we’ve looked at shows that the benefits wane over time.”
This is because of how quickly children are developing.
“The quicker students mature, they have the ability to sit in classes and do their homework and are more emotionally regulated,” Duncan says. “By the time you get late in elementary and early middle school, kids are at that point.”
But is it harmful?
While there isn’t data that proves any lasting advantages for redshirted students, there are a handful of studies that show students who start school late, as opposed to on-time, face a variety of other challenges: Higher rates of going into special education programs, higher likelihood of behavioral problems and substance abuse, higher dropout rates, lower rates of homework completion, and were more disengaged students.
And, Duncan says, research suggests there are more retention issues in early grades among redshirted students, largely due to social aspects, like bullying.
“A year makes a big difference,” Duncan says. “If you’re bigger in the class, or it’s very clear that you’re older, it’s shown that those students become a little bit less engaged or subjected to more bullying and end up not getting the same academic benefits.”
Redshirting is Most Common Among Affluent, Educated White Families
Along with academic and behavioral considerations, redshirting also requires a lot of resources. Instead of enrolling their child in school, parents have to find alternative care, either in the form of a sitter, daycare, or tutor. And those things come with a cost.
A 2023 Care.com survey found that child care is not affordable for most parents, with 67% saying they spend at least 20% of their annual household income on child care. Child care is considered affordable when it costs 7% or less of the household income, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
And, even if you can afford it, daycare is increasingly inaccessible. Aside from being put on long waitlists for limited spots, about 75% of parents reported fewer than six daycare centers within a 20-minute drive of their home.
“Pre-k, in a lot of places, is pretty expensive. There’s a little bit more of a privilege to say, ‘OK, we’ll have another year of doing that,’ or even deciding to homeschool kids,” Duncan says. “You do need resources to significantly invest in an additional year.”
And the privilege is apparent. White first-time kindergarteners were more than twice as likely to be redshirted than their Black peers, according to 2010-2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education.
And gaps exist in other other areas, too. Children from families with household incomes over 200% of the poverty line were over 50% more likely to be redshirted than their peers from families living below the poverty line. The gap was similar, looking at parents’ education: Parents with at least a bachelor’s degree were significantly more likely to redshirt their children than those without one.
Will More COVID-19 Babies Be Redshirted?
It’s difficult to track rates of redshirting over time, as states have established varying rules, from whether kindergarten is mandatory to the minimum age to enter, to the maximum age children can no longer be in school. But the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates the average rate of redshirting is between 9% and 10%.
But we’re getting close to children born during the COVID-19 pandemic approaching kindergarten age. Those children, who have already shown slower development, but Duncan says there hasn’t been anything that suggests a boom in redshirting.
“I can imagine that [parents] may be wanting to potentially do that, or might have some incentive to do that to make up for some of the unfinished learning that’s happened,” Duncan says, “but we haven’t seen anything from a data perspective that substantiates that.”
Making an Informed Decision
Parents considering redshirting their child should consider both the benefits and drawbacks, as well as the resources required for either decision.
And it’s essential to “understand the academic outcomes and the benefits wane over time,” Duncan says.
For example, if reading is the concern, it could make sense to give your student an extra year of reading instruction before they get to third grade, which is considered the pivot point when students are reading to learn.
But Ducan cautions against how proven redshirting is.
“I don’t think there’s a compelling enough research base to say that this is a foolproof strategy,” he says.
However, for Black parents who do decide to redshirt due to behavioral challenges, Duncan says they should also consider screening for learning disabilities.
“Black boys are misidentified as having behavioral issues when they’re not necessarily screened for things like dyslexia or any other sort of learning disability,” Duncan says. “Make sure there’s a real intentionality around [identifying] the hindrance or barrier to academic outcomes that may show up as behavioral challenges but are actually more about development.”