The Great Kindergarten Debate: To Send or Hold Back?

Last Updated Sep 7, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

My son started kindergarten yesterday. He's still 4. And he lived to tell about his first day.

Before you jump down my throat -- "Boys! They're slower to develop! Don't you want to hold him back a year so he has the confidence of being one of the more advanced in his class?" -- realize that there's nothing you can say to me on this whole whether-to-redshirt debate that I haven't already thought about, pretty much since the day in October nearly five years ago when the obstetrician announced, "It's a boy."

Honestly. This decision about what to do with our little fella has been agonizing. By the end of July I was loathing myself for the amount of time I was thinking about kindergarten. Should he stay or should he go? I'm pretty sure my parents never dwelled on this for a moment with me, and I'm a September birthday. (Yes, I'm well aware that I'm female, thanks.)

Look, my son is no genius. His top interests are burps, boogers, and baseball, in that order. He's on the small side for his age. Reading is way off in his future. But he can sit still and listen. Our decision boiled down to three facts: The kindergarten teacher met him and said he could hack it. There's not a whole lot left for him to get out of his preschool. And I have work to do.

So why do I have to spend so much time justifying this decision to my peers? (And myself?) When I mention my son is starting kindergarten, people look at me like I'm trapping him in a hot car instead of a cheerful room with a loving and effective teacher. Whether to send kids with late summer or early fall birthdays to kindergarten generates so much discussion on the playground that I wonder if maybe we're making a Huge Mistake. Will my son forever lag behind his peers? Will he be working at McDonald's in 40 years while his classmates from this year, 12 months older, will occupy corner offices?

I spoke to Sharon Lynn Kagan, Ed. D., a professor of early childhood and family policy at Columbia and Yale to get her take on this -- and whether she wants to shake the parents like me who spend so much time obsessing. Here are her main points.
  • Kids who have been held out a year may do better in kindergarten and first grade for a short period of time. Overall, the younger kids tend to catch up. How kids do in school is dependent on variables that are far more important than delaying the start of school entry. (Those variables include things like what's going on in the home, how much stimulation kids are receiving, if they're getting proper nutrition, and so on.)
  • Some experts contend that kids who are a little behind their peers actually do better because they're stimulated by kids who are more advanced.
  • All this talk of redshirting is kind of missing the point. In any group of youngsters, no matter what the kindergarten "cut-off date" is, there is going to be a 12-month range in ages and large variations in those kids' abilities.
  • Teachers should be sufficiently trained to tailor the kindergarten program to kids' individual needs. "To me, the most well-trained teachers should be in the kindergarten and first and second grade," Kagan says. "There are systemic and policy issues that tend to undervalue how important kindergarten is to long-term development." The real issue is not whether Johnny, whose birthday is in September, should stay home another year or go, it's making sure that schools have those qualified teachers.
  • The general opinion on this is that all kids should start school at their given chronological age. There should be some sort of screening - not onerous, but something at the beginning - so that teachers have a good idea of where kids are performing on all dimensions of development: social, emotional, physical, language, cognitive.
  • This issue of "redshirting" tends to be discussed "amongst middle and upper class families who have the wherewithal to provide very rich, meaningful alternatives," Kagan says. Yes, keeping them out might advantage them, but that might be because of the nature of the experience they're getting in the interim when compared to kids who don't have other options.
  • Kindergartens do demand more of children these days, which has led to more families wanting to keep their kids out. A good kindergarten teacher, who knows how to plan and how to bring her kids from where they are to where they need to be, can manage those demands.
  • "There are so many other critical issues facing kindergarten and early education," Kagan says. "I would love to refocus the discourse: Why do we have poor quality in kindergarten, how are we going about funding kindergarten, how about funding for preschool?" The debate about redshirting, she says, saps a lot of energy. I can attest to that.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Dave Parker, CC 2.0
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