Delay Kindergarten at Your Child's Peril? Spinning the Red-Shirting Studies

THIS fall, one in 11 kindergarten-age children in the United States will not be going to class. Parents of these children often delay school entry in an attempt to give them a leg up on peers, but this strategy is likely to be counterproductive.   From Delay Kindergarten at Your Child's Peril, New York Times, Sept. 24, 2011
It's September so tis the season for The Kindergarten Red-Shirting Saga, the debate over whether parents should send kids to kindergarten essentially as the youngest in the class or the oldest (i.e. red-shirted).  I'll take on that "leg up on peers" allegation in a bit but will say upfront I have two girls born right on the line, one on the actual cut-off date.  Having the "choice" is both a luxury and burden. I have thought/worried/studied/belabored this one way too much and am hardly an unbiased observer here though I have tried to objectively look at the data. 

Oh, the data.  Messy. It's an understatement to say the data are all over the place.

A good deal of the red-shirting studies involve economists calculating lifetime wages and degrees. Much of it spans decades.  Remember the long time-frame creates all sorts of confounding factors.  The even larger problem with this research - the fact there are many reasons for "red-shirting" kindergartners and most of them have nothing to do with sports or competition - and often these factors have been completely left out of the study.

Let's look at the latest scuffle brought to us in the New York Times by two neuroscience-minded minds, one a biology prof, the other a science writer with a neuroscience background.  Here's one of their claims regarding the risks of red-shirting:

In high school, redshirted children are less motivated and perform less well.
The group of kiddies "left behind," held back" or "given the gift of another year" are hardly a homogenous group.  Some held back for sports and some are held back due to real issues, the kind that also, not coincidentally, correlate to school performance.  Like developmental delays, learning disabilities and the like.  No wonder some of these youths don't make Honor Roll.

Some studies show differences in school performance for the red-shirted, especially when addressing those who were held back for those academic-related deficits.  Would some kids have been better off in school  - versus as one commentator wrote a few years back and I can't quite get out of my head - sitting in grandma's basement? Surely. 

If a child's choice is between watching tv and kindergarten, then hey, starting earlier might be best. Especially if they have no or a poor pre-school experience.  If it's high quality Pre-K versus kindergarten, then maybe it doesn't matter.  There are clearly financial aspects involved, like free kindergarten versus costly preschool or daycare. 

Speaking of economics, the authors of the recent NY Times piece also bring up these findings about the red-shirted kids:
By adulthood, they are no better off in wages or educational attainment — in fact, their lifetime earnings are reduced by one year.
So the kids have one less year of income.  Makes sense, it's straightforward enough. 

Please note that there are no differences here in terms of how much money these grown-up kiddies make.  Or their degrees.  None.

Our neuroscience team spins this as an arugment for not holding back kids.  Of course some may use this an argument for holding them back.  Look, there are no differences - you aren't condemning your child to a life of burger-flipping or repeated GED tests should you wait another year or not.

Are kids who delay kindergarten any happier? More confident? Emotionally well-adjusted? Socially?  It's anyone's guess. Haven't been able to find much there. 

As a psychologist I couldn't help but note the short nod to socio-emotional preparedness.  Kindergarten requires all kinds of social skills and emotional resources.  Any teacher could tell you and the authors admit, there can be a large gap in these less tangible but no less important social and emotional skills.  In fact, study after study show these more abstract, harder to teach skills like resilience and empathy, (i.e. emotional intelligence) are more critical to future success than academics. 

The authors suggest younger kids learn these skills from older kids.  Yes, just a suggestion because there's not lots of data but by the way, there is research showing older kids acquire empathy and self-confidence from teaching younger kids at school.  Don't think younger children have a monopoly on empathy here.  Montessouri education is partly premised on the benefits of mixed-age classes.  Again, the data here swing in all directions depending on the specifics of the study, the population, the predictors, the outcomes studied, the time frame. 

What about that "leg up" allegation.  You know, that parents just want their kids to whoop the other kids at school, the field, the playground.  But honestly, if a parent worries his or her child simply is not ready for the demands of kindergarten is it fair to characterize this often difficult decision as a potential competitive tact?  I think not.

For that matter, we don't frame other parenting decisions about children's well-being in terms of competition.  We don't perceive breastfeeding as a competitive advantage, breastpumps and boppies accoutrements of achievement-oriented yearnings...but maybe we should.  You want your kid healthier, bigger, stronger, that's why you breastfeed, no? 

Come on, it was the varsity sports banquet that made you put the kid on the boob for so long, right?  Maybe the kindergarten admissions test? No? Maybe you didn't envision something so specific but in general you wanted the best head start for your baby.  When it comes to kindergarten, the demands are quite specific and parents and teachers have to think about and assess them.  If you have a child not quite ready, for whatever reason, it gets complicated. 

Kindergarten is not just cookies and story time these days.  It's work.  Hard work.  That's a whole other discussion.  It's not gonna get any less challenging.  Not gonna happen.  We can wish for less worksheets and more free play but that's not realistic in our new global China-is-kicking our butts economy.  In this new reality, kids who sit around in poor quality pre-school or grandma's basement are left behind at great risk.

Improving the quality of preschool for kids whose parents can't afford or don't have access to good programs - that's a whole bag of worms I wish every governor, school district would address, if not Mr. Obama himself.  It's a no-brainer, better pre-school.  We can sit around pointing fingers at the kids who start kindergarten later but it's not gonna fix the lack of quality preschool or daycare. 

The traditional underlying concern of the anti-redshirt camp is that it harms the younger children.  That parents make their kids sit out a year to get stronger and bigger so as to outperform their younger peers.      

The harm from red-shirting then happens if red-shirting has benefits.  Really the fear is that it benefits kids from wealthier families, you know, the kids who can afford to languish in a good Pre-K.  But the current authors argue the reverse - that red-shirting doesn't benefit anyone.  In fact, they go out of their way to show it's risky for the kids being delayed.

Uggh.  That's why I wish we could honestly address the complexity of the issue because the truth is closer to this:  delaying kindergarten is risky for some children (like those in the basement), beneficial for others.  Again, the world is not black and white.  I get it, the more the more affluent families delay kindergarten, the more everyone else does including the less affluent families (without the benefit of good Pre-K and thus another "wasted" year) because who wants their kid to be the youngest by 18 months or more.  However, it's simply not accurate to say red-shirting generally risks the late entry kids.  Not so.         

By the way, there is one notable risk for kids who start early.  Getting slapped with ADHD.  Yes, kids who start earlier are at risk of being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder according to a study out of North Carolina last year:

...the study shows that children born just after the kindergarten cutoff date were 25 percent less likely to be diagnosed as having ADHD than children born just before the cutoff date. "This indicates that there are children who are diagnosed (or not) because of something other than underlying biological or medical reasons. We believe that younger children may be mistakenly diagnosed as having ADHD, when in fact they are simply less mature," (author) Morrill says..."What our research shows is that similar students have significantly different diagnosis rates depending on when their birthday falls in relation to the school year." Birth Dates, School Enrollment Dates Affect ADHD Diagnosis Rates, Study Shows, Science Daily, August 17, 2010.

So if you're worried about your son or daughter being misdiagnosed with ADHD then that's something to consider.  Wonder if the authors address this in their new book? Hhmmm.

So in the dearth of relevant data in a complicated often overly-politicized world, it's up to parents to make their own decisions.  Now if you'll excuse me I must garner some healthy snacks, schedule some teeth cleanings and sign my daughters up for a volleyball clinic - because I really want my children to be healthier, shinier, and more graceful on the open court than your children.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing some of the other issues behind this issue. It's hard to know what to do as a parent. Good post!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Anony, thanks. Yes, it's hard enough to know what to do considering the data and your kid let alone the political angles.

Awesome Mom said...

I actually accidentally red shirted my middle son. We had just moved into town and I had just assumed that the cut off was the first day of the school year and not the first of the year since that was how it was at the old school district. I don't think he was bored at his preschool even though he probably could have done all the kindergarten work just fine and it gave him a chance to get to know some of the kids who would be in his kindergarten class making the transition much smoother. I never thought I should be worried that he was being harmed and in fact you would be hard pressed to even find any evidence that there was harm to him even done.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Funny story, Awesome! Thanks for sharing. At what point did you realize the cut-off date was what, January? Glad no one's been unintentionally "harmed!" Question is, would you do it again for another child?

Awesome Mom said...

I found out a few months into the school year when I was talking to another preschool mom who was thinking about red shirting her younger kid.

I will have to face the question again with my newborn since she was born mid September. I am not sure what I will do right now. I plan on just waiting and seeing how I feel when it gets closer to the time so I can accurately judge her readiness. Really it is all about the individual child. Studies can show what they do about a group of kids but they can never predict what an individual child is going to do.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Absolutely. As much as I respect and seek out the science, it says very little about the individual child. I bet you'll have a good sense when it comes time! Enjoy for now. I so miss little babies.

Anonymous said...

My younger daughter was born the very end of September (just turned 3!). I have "red-shirting" in the back of my mind. She started nursery school this year and doing very well. When she is in PreK next year we will re-evaluate. I also wonder how many kids "red-shirted" are first born vs. other birth orders?
From what I've heard, from a few personal sources (one being my own mother about my brother), is that the lag in developemnt or maturity doesn't always show up until the pre-teen years.

Just like everything else W/R/T parenting each child is so unique.
Good to know about the ADHD correlations as well...interesting.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Anony,

Thanks for sharing! Interesting quex about birth order, never read anything about it in relation to kindergarten "readiness" but will root around. What's your theory? First-borns more often red-shirted? Yes, my mother (retired K teacher), two aunts (K and preschool director) swear that the age differences rear again in middle-school. Don't know, just getting there in this household...but I'd say differences are quite large in pre-K and K too! Not so much academically but socially IMO.