I am one of those people who could be career students. I always loved school. From a young age, I knew that I would attend law school one day, and I was very confident that I would pass the California bar exam (the most difficult to pass in the country) on my first try. And I did. And then I practiced for less than a year (but that’s another story!).
So you can imagine the high academic expectations that I have for my children. I just assumed they would be like me, and excel in school and academics from a young age.
That’s the wonderful thing about parenthood. Just when you think you have everything figured out, you get knocked on your ass with another surprise and have to navigate a brave new world, filled with anxiety and apprehension that you just might be screwing up your child’s life.
But the reality is, childhood is dramatically different today than it was when we were kids. Kindergarten used to be around three hours a day and consisted of play-based educational activities like spelling your name in macaroni. I still have my silver macaroni craft somewhere at my parent’s house.
While reading was introduced, it was not a central focus. Instead, the goal was for reading to be mastered by the end of first grade. When I was in kindergarten, many kids were just starting to pick it up at the end of the year.
There was no homework. There were no tests. Kindergarten was designed to introduce kids to school with a focus on fun activities. (We used to watch Sesame Street once a week in the classroom!)
Well, that form of kindergarten no longer exists today. It has been replaced by first grade, moved down a grade, with all of the expectations that really are not appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds just being introduced to “real school.” As part of “No Child Left Behind,” kindergarten now includes daily homework with assignments like writing “On Wednesdays I go to the library,” counting including addition, tests every Friday, “rainbow words” that kids need to memorize, and large projects that are mostly completed by parents (by necessity).
It’s intense. While I appreciate that higher educational standards have been applied to our kids, the pressure placed on them is way too much. There are far better ways to help children become successful, critical-thinking, innovative problem-solvers than just cramming in a year’s worth of knowledge into a lower grade, with a constant stream of tests that take the emphasis away from learning by doing.
But I can’t change the system — all I can do is figure out what is best for my son.
I knew my son would be one of the youngest kids in his class. The age cutoff in California was slowly moved back from December 31 to September 1 over the past few years due to parents’ redshirting their kids after the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book which showed how the majority of professional athletes on a hockey team had birthdays from January through March, making them the oldest kids in their class. It was posited that older kids in a grade have several advantages, as they are more advanced physically, mentally, and emotionally, are able to learn faster, and are therefore more confident than their peers.
There is truth to this theory. Think about the difference between a newborn and a 6-month-old baby who might be crawling, and then a 1-year-old who might be walking or even running. While the difference between 5 and 6 isn’t quite as dramatic, there is a huge difference in a child who is an entire year older. According to a new study from Stanford University, Danish children who started kindergarten a year later did better in school, with results lasting throughout their academic careers.
Instead of imposing strict date cutoffs for each grade, it would seem better to test or interview children to find out where they are in their growth, development, and maturity and then decide where to place each child. A boy who is born in the summer is almost always going to be significantly behind a girl born on the same day, and very behind a boy born a full 10, 11, or 12 months before him.
When my son was “graduating” from preschool, I was not sure he was ready to start kindergarten, but his preschool didn’t offer a pre-K option and he was too advanced for another year of the oldest preschool class. So we decided to try kindergarten.
Before the school year began, I spoke to his principal and told her he may need to repeat the year. She was less than receptive and said the school had only one girl who was repeating the year. I then met with her to change his class assignment from a room with 15 out of 24 kids who completed pre-K together in the same classroom, with the same teacher that my son was assigned to for kindergarten. These 15 kids were already fully reading and writing, and substantially more advanced than my son. Why would they put my very young kindergartener in a room with 15 kids who are a full year older than him?
In addition, his classroom had 15 boys out of 24 kids, which I also did not think would bode well for a young boy who may be more easily distracted than his peers.
Thankfully, we were able to get his class changed. From the beginning, we could tell he was less mature than his classmates. While his behavior and focus were both excellent, his fine motor skills and readiness to learn letters and start reading were both lagging. At back-to-school night, we could instantly find his artwork by looking for the chicken scratch and big looping characters that somewhat resembled letters. He was trying so hard, but it was obvious to us that he was young for his class.
Let me stop here, and say that if your child has a summer birthday and is struggling in kindergarten, do not stress. They are not destined for academic struggles. They are just young.
Remember when your baby tried to crawl? Maybe they would get into a crawling position and rock back and forth and not know what to do next? They were interested, but something had not yet clicked in their brain. This is exactly what my son was going through. He enjoyed kindergarten — the structure, the social aspects, his teacher, and the activities. But something for him just hadn’t clicked yet; he was just a bit too young compared to his classmates.
In January, after winter break, I felt like my son was where many of the kids were in September. Although he had mastered his letters and memorized two rainbow words lists, he was just getting to the point of really being academically mature enough for kindergarten. Pre-K would have been a better option for him, but logistically, it wasn’t something that would have worked for our family.
So I decided to ask my Facebook friends if anyone had held their child back and what the outcomes were. I received over 100 comments and many private messages with stories from moms encouraging me to stick with my gut instinct and have my son repeat kindergarten. Mom after mom told me how beneficial it was for their child or shared that they wished they had done the same.
Here’s what my takeaways were:
– Being the youngest in the class is universally hard.
– My son will graduate high school and only be 17 years old.
– My son will be the last to learn how to drive.
– The youngest kids may be slower to develop physically, shorter, and less advanced with sports and other interests.
– My son will be more confident being one of the older kids, picking up lessons, and other social norms faster.
– My son will have an extra year at home with us before he starts college.
– The cerebral cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, develops slower in boys than girls.
– Having our son home with us a year longer will hopefully ensure he makes better decisions when he is on his own in college.
– He will be less influenced by peer pressure.
– He will be a leader instead of a follower.
– Older kids do often perform better in sports, in school, and in their careers.
One friend who wrote her master’s thesis on holding younger children back a grade reached out to me and shared with me all of the research and studies that showed how much better it is for young kids to have the “gift of time” as she called it. And now the Stanford study reinforces this.
Armed with this knowledge, I told my son’s teacher that I was thinking about holding him back. Her response was immediate — she was thinking about the same thing. It is what is best for my son. He is not failing kindergarten. He is currently on grade level for everything except reading and writing. He is not slow. He is just young. He needs more time to grow and mature and will thrive in kindergarten next year.
If you have the same feelings about your child, I implore you to really consider your options and do what is best for your child.
Remember, the gift of time is never a bad thing in life.