By Donna McClintock, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Donna McClintock is the chief operating officer of Children’s Choice Learning Centers, Inc. She has served in a leadership role in early childhood education for more than 29 years and has been in a senior executive leadership role for more than a decade. She has authored several books on the topic of early childhood education, including “The Heart Connector Series.”
I often read materials that approach a subject as if there were only one solution. Such is the case of “redshirting” children for kindergarten, which is the practice of holding a child back from school until he turns six. There is certainly a best answer for each child, and parents and educators must determine what that answer is by considering his individual needs and development and not by blindly following a trend.
No matter WHAT you decide to do, we know for sure that parents must understand that a child’s brain cannot be redshirted or held back. The child’s experiences during the fifth and sixth year of life are extremely important because the brain continues to develop and form synapses, and learning is at an all-time high.
It is the responsibility of parents and educators to challenge, nurture, inspire and ignite in our children a love of learning and exploration during this critical time. How do you do this when formal education in a school system begins as an individual choice for each child? There are several key factors to consider, but the child’s individual needs are the trump card in this decision.
Most research clearly shows that any gaps in levels of success between younger and older children are usually bridged by the third grade. This leaves parents to wonder if there is an advantage to holding their child back. I offer the position that the type of program your child is in during the first year of formal school is really the key to success.
Each child deserves a developmentally appropriate setting that understands how children 5 to 6 years of age learn, whether that is a formalized kindergarten program, the home environment provided by parents, or another alternative.
I have studied how children learn and develop and have been in the field of early care and education for more than 30 years. The greatest part of my knowledge comes from my own children, my grandchildren, and the children I have the honor of serving each day. They are incredible teachers.
Without a doubt, parenting my own three children has been one of the most surprising experiences of my life. As a little 1, my son was loud, funny, and never stopped. My daughter was quiet, reserved, and graceful. Then, child No. 3 broke ALL the rules. I was naïve to think that what worked for one child would automatically work for another, and it took me months to figure out that I had to parent each one in completely different ways as they passed through phases that I thought I knew how to handle. Each child is unique.
There simply isn’t a manual on how to make critical decisions for children. Just when you think you have it figured out, your child will completely confuse you.
Therefore, with everything that has been written about kindergarten redshirting, it can be extremely difficult for parents to find clear guidelines for making an informed decision.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. First and foremost, you must answer this: If you hold your child back, what will she do during this time of rapid growth and learning? You cannot redshirt the brain. If not formal kindergarten, what do you intend to do for her that will inspire, excite, and motivate her during this time of rapid growth and learning?
2. Is it your need or your child’s need to wait to enter kindergarten? Ask yourself if you are holding your child back for any of these reasons:
• Are you feeling pressure from family and friends because it is the current trend? If your friends were sending their child to kindergarten, would you send yours? If your answer is “yes,” perhaps the answer should be “yes” for your child regardless of what your friends do.
• Are you holding your child back because of sports? If so, is the sport the child’s passion or yours? You may be attempting to live out your unfulfilled sports dream vicariously through your child.
• Are you holding your child back to protect him from normal childhood behaviors of other children? For example, are you afraid he will be teased because he is small in size? If he is ready in all other areas, shielding him is probably not the answer. Equipping him to cope with other children might be a much better solution and will also teach him skills he will need for the rest of his life.
• Are you worried about how you will handle the separation? Remember, the decision should be about the child.
3. Are there resources available within the school that he could benefit from or do you feel that the program is simply too structured? We know how children learn before the age of 6. If the program is not a true hands-on, positive, developmentally appropriate program, then perhaps redshirting is a good choice or choosing a different school might be an even better one. Kindergarten programs vary, and it is important that your child is prepared for first grade. If you choose a kindergarten program outside of the school where he will attend first grade, you will need to work with the school to ensure readiness. This is not allowed in some private schools—children must be accepted into the kindergarten program in order to move into the first-grade program. Make sure you are informed when you make your decision.
Research thus far does not support that holding children back has long-term, positive outcomes. A 2008 report by Harvard University’s Susan Dynarski and David Deming indicates that little evidence supports that children who have been allowed to mature for another year will benefit more. In fact, as the report states, being the oldest among classmates really has no lasting, positive effect on how a child succeeds in life. Their self-concept and acceptance by peers are about the same, as are teacher ratings of behavior for oldest (redshirted) and youngest (not redshirted) children.
In previous research retrospective and cross-sectional analyses show redshirts do not do as well as their peers when it comes to behavior problems. Although redshirting does not seem to cause increased rates of social and emotional difficulty, it does not appear to solve them either. And none of the studies that have ever been done prove that redshirting solves societal issues.
Finally, the most important point yet, once the decision is made, do not hesitate to amend it if you feel that your child is not thriving. Remember that wonderful slogan, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste”? While it may be too late to get him into the original kindergarten program you wanted to, do not allow him to waste this critical year of opportunity.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna McClintock.