Back in the fall of 1976, I started kindergarten. I was 4 years old, with a late fall birthday, and in those days parents didn’t think twice about sending their 4-year-olds to school — as the age cutoff was typically December 31. It was commonplace to have a classroom full of 4-year-olds, who would age in (and catch up) with the older kids as the year went by.
These days that is almost unheard of because most school districts have adjusted the age cutoff to land somewhere in late July or August, meaning there are no 4-year-olds in kindergarten. But in recent years, even that age adjustment hasn’t been enough, and many parents are “redshirting” their 5-year-olds. Redshirting is a term used in collegiate athletics to describe the practice of freshmen not participating in their first year and still retaining four years of eligibility, thus giving them the advantage of an entire year of improving their skills and being “older” when they start playing.
Parents have seen the benefit of this in early education as well, and it’s now fairly common for parents to delay the start of kindergarten, opting instead to wait until their child is 6 years old (and hopefully more mature and ready for a full school day) in the hopes they are more ready to meet the rigors of modern-day kindergarten.
A Stanford study agrees, and found that “kids who delayed attending kindergarten to the later year were far more likely to be able to pay attention in school and had ‘dramatically higher levels of self-control’ than their peers. And that advantage was sustained for years afterward.”
In addition, researchers noted that by delaying kindergarten, you’re able to reduce the chance of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. Parent of boys, in particular, have jumped on the delayed kindergarten trend for this very reason, as boys tend to display more of an inability to have their attention held at that age than girls, and are the reason there is a higher number of boys being redshirted than girls.
Researchers explain it as the “relative age effect,” meaning the older children in the class, when compared with the younger ones, possess a more “advanced physiology,” ultimately making them more teachable.
But does delaying kindergarten have long-term effects beyond the early elementary school years, or do these children eventually “even out” with their peers in middle and high school?
A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Affairs is one of the first to follow redshirted kindergartners into adulthood, and their findings are worth noting. Writing about the study results, NPR notes that “children who start school at an older age do better than their younger classmates and have better odds of attending college and graduating from an elite institution.”
The study specifically focused on children who turned 5 in August and then immediately started kindergarten and compared them to children who turned 5 the previous September and were in the same class. Researchers found the older children scored higher on college entrance exams, with an achievement gap of almost 40 points on the SAT. Also worth noting is the fact that the socioeconomic level of the children had little to do with any age achievement gaps — meaning even the children of higher-income families with more resources saw the same disadvantages when starting school at age 4.
Perhaps this new problem of overwhelming concern of what age we should send our children to kindergarten has nothing to do with their age at all, but with what the average modern kindergarten looks like. It has seemingly morphed into the new first grade, with children expected to be independently reading before they even step into a classroom.
Researchers from the Economic Affairs study somewhat agree and have suggested that children in early childhood grades be grouped more by age than grade-level expectations to better smooth out the dramatic difference a year in age can make at such an early stage in education. A reduction in our over-the-top expectations for incoming kindergarteners would also likely make it easier for the younger set in the class to catch up with their older peers.