Early Education     K-12    

Ready — or not — for kindergarten?

Is academic redshirting right for your child?

Lauren Dean of Poughkeepsie was taken by surprise this past May during a meeting with her son Noah’s preschool teachers about his recent evaluations. While he was age-eligible to enter kindergarten in the coming fall, it was suggested that Dean consider postponing it another year. Redshirting her son (as this academic practice is called) had never even crossed her mind, but now she had a decision to make.

Noah would turn 5 years old after kindergarten began, but before the New York State cutoff date of December 1. Children with birthdays in this range can enter elementary school at age 4 and are on the younger end of the class. Many parents with children in this situation are opting instead to postpone entrance to kindergarten a year, resulting in the students being close to 6 years old when they enter school.

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“For a child to be truly ready for kindergarten, she is required to engage in a complicated dance between the acquisition of social and emotional, physical, cognitive and language skills,” says Dr. Lindsey Russo, an assistant professor of early childhood education at SUNY New Paltz with 15 years experience as a preschool educator. “The experience can be compared to a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces must fit neatly together — and this happens at different times for different children.”

Maturity and social skills

Saugerties mom Marissa Siracusano chose to hold back her son Tyler, whose birthday is in October. “I felt academically my son would have been OK, but as far as maturity he needed the extra time.”

Maturity is a significant factor for parents making this decision. They wonder if their child will be able to handle the behavior that will be asked of them in the classroom — staying seated, keeping quiet during lessons, focusing on schoolwork. Tyler just started kindergarten this fall and Siracusano says she is glad she waited that extra year.

For Dean, this was the chief concern regarding Noah. “His teachers said that it wasn’t about his level of learning; that he was smart and already knew a lot for his age. They told me his biggest hurdle was he was immature.”

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Why is it called “redshirting”?

The term “redshirting” is borrowed from collegiate sports. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “redshirt” is a “college athlete who is kept out of varsity competition for a year in order to extend eligibility.” They spend their first year on the team solely developing their skills, then the next four competing.

‘Fall babies’

Tanya Daw, who has been teaching kindergarten in the Kingston City School District for 13 years, says “fall babies” can usually be picked out during the first semester of school. “The 4-year-olds are quietly looking around trying to figure out what is going on and how everyone else seems to get it.”

Kindergarteners are often expected to be on their best behavior for about seven hours, including bus time. “It’s like a seven-hour soccer game in which it’s expected that that there will be no whining, resting, lap time, parent check in, silliness on the field, fooling around on the sidelines, and not have their attention wander off the game and their coaches the entire time,” says Daw, who believes that in most instances this is a developmentally inappropriate feat to ask of any 4-year-old.

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According to Dr. Russo, “When younger children are given an additional year to work on social skills before entering kindergarten, they do so with greater confidence, self-esteem, an ability to focus and a readiness to learn.”

Academic readiness

Another factor in the decision to redshirt is the academic readiness of the child. This is a more important consideration for parents than it was a decade or two ago as standards for kindergarten continue to rise. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 resulted in increased standardization and expectations in kindergarten, and now the newly-implemented Common Core Standards Initiative is raising the bar once again. 

“In the ‘new kindergarten,’ academics have replaced dramatic play, socialization and outdoor curricula,” explains Dr. Russo. “This lack of attention to the fostering of social skills and the increased focus on the development of academic skills represents an enormous paradigm shift in the traditional purpose of the kindergarten year.”

Daw agrees. “Young kindergarten kids do not have all the different skills they need to be successful in today’s kindergarten. I am not sure they did even in the more developmentally-appropriate kindergarten of 10 to 15 years ago.”

Preschool can help

Whether or not the child has attended preschool can have a significant impact in this area.

“Children who start out in Early Intervention, or go to preschool prior to kindergarten, are much more ready to meet the academic and social or emotional demands of kindergarten than those who do not,” says Shamien Jansen, a 7th grade educator from Port Ewen.

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Jessica Jackson of Ulster Park sent her daughter Abagael to kindergarten at the age of 4 and now wishes she had done things differently. “I didn't realize as a first-time parent what was expected of a child in kindergarten. I believe her not having been to preschool had a lot to do with it.” 

Dr. Russo also points out, however, that children with late birthdays who are at an appropriate developmental level cognitively may be bored or under-challenged if held back purely because of their age. Every child needs to be evaluated on an individual basis.

Colleen Mulready from Esopus made the decision to send her 4-year-old son, Desmond, to kindergarten last year. “We felt he would be bored and unhappy as it was clear that academically and socially he was ready for the challenges of kindergarten.”

Mulready says they also considered the results of his kindergarten screening to make their decision. Now they cannot imagine having done things differently. “By October, he was flourishing in his classroom and had an amazing kindergarten year. I like the idea that he may be challenged in these early years, as opposed to being bored because he is older and more advanced than his peers.”

Financial constraints

For parents who have trouble affording childcare or preschool for their child, redshirting can be an even more difficult choice to make. Universal Pre-Kindergarten and Head Start are programs that can help offset costs for preschoolers, but are not available to students who are school-aged. However, the Department of Social Services offers childcare assistance to families who meet the state’s low-income guidelines and need childcare to work or to look for work. Eligibility is granted on a case-by-case basis and is an option worth looking into for those who are held back by finances.

Special needs considerations

Parents of children with special needs also have more to consider in this decision. Beth Zeman, a mother of three from Monroe, sent her 4-year-old daughter Sarah to kindergarten this year. Sarah has Down’s syndrome, which meant that for her, redshirting could have resulted in a lack of necessary services.

According to Dr. Russo, one concern with parents redshirting their children is that some may do so under the assumption that the student is not developmentally mature enough, when in fact they may be in need of special education services. This is one reason why it’s important to seek professional opinions and collect all the information you can about your child before making a choice.

After much reflection, Lauren Dean and her fiancé made the decision to give Noah one more year in preschool before entering kindergarten. Asking for input in an online forum with other parents who had been through a similar experience was the turning point for her. “I feel optimistic that the extra year to brush up on his fundamentals and learn patience and self-control will make kindergarten and beyond a little easier on him — and on me and his Dad.”

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Tips for making the decision

Gather all the advice you can from people who know your child well, (ie. teachers, caregivers, pediatrician, family, etc.)

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Talk to your child and listen to their feelings about the decision.

Trust that as parents, you know your child best.

Remember that your child is unique and what’s best for other children may not be best for yours.

How can you help prepare your child now?

Dr. Lindsay Russo offers advice that you can implement now to help your preschool-aged child be successful when kindergarten time comes.

Arrange playdates for your child, especially with a diverse group of children.

Play outdoors. Outdoor play helps children develop independence and self-coping skills.

Present your child with experiences in as many diverse social situations and environments as possible.

Give your child opportunities to direct their own play to establish independence.

Teach your child how to learn by asking questions, experimenting, and using resources available to them to find answers. 

Advice from a kindergarten teacher:

Kindergarten teacher Tanya Daw offers this advice is for all parents of kindergarteners for the first few months of the school year. For young kindergarteners, it should extend to the spring: 

Cancel all after-school activities. Your student has spent seven hours giving their best. They do not need to work overtime!

Push up the bedtime. If it was 8 p.m., then make it 7:30. Kindergarten is draining!

Give them quiet time in their room or someplace quiet right after school. They need some time to regroup.

Please don’t interrogate them about their day. The information will come when they have finished processing it. Family dinners and/or bedtime seems to be the best opportunities for information dumping.

Sarah Coppola is a wife, mom of two, and a Hudson Valley native who lives in Port Ewen. She can also be found writing at her website FamilyFriendlyHudsonValley.com.