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Is My 4.9-Year-Old Ready for Kindergarten?

When my daughter was not yet three, her big brother told her she couldn’t follow him to kindergarten because she couldn’t write her name. She stomped off to her art table, returning a few minutes later and thrust a scrap of paper at him. There it was, spidery but legible: RUBY – her ticket to kindergarten. “Now I can go,” she declared.

She’s always been a determined child – her grandfather saw it in her eyes when she was just a week old. But with a mid-November birthday, just two weeks shy of California’s Dec. 2 kindergarten cut-off, she’d be young when her turn for kindergarten came around. Other parents, as well as her preschool teachers, asked whether we planned to send her “early” or give her the “gift of time.” The snarkier term is red-shirting – after the practice of sidelining freshman college athletes so they’re bigger and buffer when they start competing – and it’s become almost de rigueur among affluent, highly educated parents.

I was familiar with the practice of delaying kindergarten for boys who hadn’t mastered the pencil grip or were too antsy to sit criss-cross applesauce through a tedious lesson. But the preschool directors argued a case that had nothing to do with academics or sports. It was about something deeper and less tangible: social-emotional growth. With more time to play and explore, Ruby would grow more comfortable in her own skin and more confident in her ideas. They also argued – and I heard this from parents of older children, too – that even if her relative immaturity wasn’t an issue in kindergarten, it could catch up with her in the social and academic pressure-cooker of middle school.

“Kids develop an early self-concept that school is something they do well at – or not,” said Susan Killebrew, who teaches social-emotional skills development in the Oakland schools. University of Toronto economist Elizabeth Dhuey, whose work on relative age was cited by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, concluded that the oldest students in a high school class are more likely to lead student government, school clubs, and the cheerleading squad.

I wasn’t entirely convinced. Ruby helped lead songs at circle time, got high marks for playing well with others, and spent much of her free time drawing tiny pictures and folding them with origami-like precision. She seemed ready enough. Did she also need a well-formed self-identity? After all, wasn’t that what the post-high-school Europe-by-Eurail tour was for?

In a 2009 article, labor economist Darren Lubotsky of the University of Illinois and his colleagues analyzed data that followed children over long periods. The youngest, they found, are far more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and are three times as likely to repeat a grade. Lubotsky found no relationship between age and other learning issues like dyslexia, which suggests that ADHD diagnoses are more subjective. In a forthcoming paper, Dhuey reports that each additional month of age within a class decreases a kid’s likelihood of needing to receive special education services by two to five percent.

Despite all this, Lubotsky argues against both red-shirting and raising kindergarten age requirements. According to him, both practices have negligible long-term academic benefits and hurt lower-income children. “The differences between the oldest and the youngest are the largest on the first day of kindergarten, and the advantages decrease over time. There may be short-term individual advantages, but delaying the rapid learning that occurs in the first year of school is a big cost for the kids who don’t have an enriching environment.”

In 2002, Deborah Stipek, a developmental psychologist and dean of the Stanford University School of Education, reviewed more than two dozen school-age studies and found that younger students catch up with the oldest by third grade – without any signs of permanent damage to their self-esteem. She concluded that being younger had no effect on “peer rejection, loneliness, perceived competence, and classroom behavior” nor “attention, anxiety, and a variety of social-emotional measures.”

She told me she wanted to go back to kindergarten when she’s six and not so little.

Yet researchers like Stipek who take a holistic approach are swimming against a strong tide: test-driven public education. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher told me that six years ago, thanks to No Child Left Behind, the books she’d previously used in the spring suddenly became curriculum for entering students in September. And most red-shirting data predates those changes. “The extreme focus on literacy and mathematics to the exclusion of all else is out of whack,” says Beth Graue, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin.

It benefits schools to let kindergartners be older, in hopes of them testing better for No Child Left Behind. Over the past decades, states have moved back their age cutoffs, and most now require entering kindergartners to turn five by September. Only five states, including California and New York, have later cutoffs. Consequently, the percentage of five-year-olds not yet enrolled in kindergarten has doubled since 1980, from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Hopefully, the public education system will swing back (perhaps former Bush education advisor Diane Ravitch – who has done a 180 on the issue – will lead the charge, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon). And in the meantime, I needed to figure out what to do with my daughter.

I admit, I find red-shirting problematic. Someone has to be the youngest in the class, and it bugs me that parents with money can game the system so it’s not their kid. At wealthier schools, the red-shirting rate is now 20 percent or more, resulting in an 18-month age range in kindergarten. At my children’s mixed-income Oakland, California, public school, most parents still enrolled their kids when they were eligible. Ruby was dying to go, and so we sent her.

Triumphantly skipping off to her first day of school, Ruby was younger than more than 98 percent of her peers nationwide. She has since learned to write on the lines, read simple books, and has made lots of friends. But it’s become increasingly clear that a full-day academic pace is wearing her down. Her determination has flagged, she’s constantly exhausted and has grown so distracted in class she can’t finish her work. Though she’s at grade level or even a bit above, her teacher has concerns about whether she’ll be able to handle first grade.

My daughter works slowly; she was recently adding detail to a kite drawing in her alphabet book while her classmates were finishing zebras. That’s not a problem now, but it could become one. In second grade, her brother’s teacher is prepping the class for their first round of the California Standards Test. Every Friday, they have two minutes to complete 32 simple arithmetic problems. Some kids just can’t work that fast and end the week in tears.

All this makes me wish I had put Ruby on the slow plan. I recently took her back to spend the day at her old preschool, where she could linger over her snack and perfect her drawings without anyone telling her to put away the crayons for a phonics lesson. She fit right back in. Afterwards, she told me she wanted to stay there and go back to kindergarten when she’s six and not so little.

Am I reading too much into it? Possibly. But I no longer see the “gift of time” as the precious creation of over-anxious parents. I cringe at the idea that her self-image is being influenced by something as accidental as her birth date. And as I ponder the slog that lies ahead of her, I can’t help but want her to have a bit more time to be immature.

This piece was originally published on March 31, 2010

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