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Ready For Kindergarten? The Great Debate

By Sierra Black |

Would you red-shirt your kindergartener?

While some parents red-shirt their five-year-old to give them an edge in kindergarten, others are chafing to get their four-year-olds into public school classrooms. How can we tell who’s ready for kindergarten?

The New York Times rounds up a handful of expert opinions for their op-ed pages, and the answers are not what you think. For the most part, they agree on one thing: age doesn’t matter. In deciding whether or not to red-shirt, or where to set the cut-off age for kindergarten admission, parents and educators are asking the wrong question.

Instead, they should be taking a harder look at what kindergarten is all about.

One thing all the NYT debaters agree on is that ensuring academic readiness for disadvantaged kids should be a priority. Moving the kindergarten age of entry back without providing high-quality preschool for those 4-year-olds who get left behind won’t help. What’s needed is comprehensive early childhood education that levels the playing field for kids coming into first grade. Access to high quality preschool makes a much bigger difference than a few months age gap.

My colleague Carolyn suggests schools should keep the 4-year-olds in their kindergartens and ditch the 7-year-olds at the upper end of the age range. She may be on to something. Another big theme in the NYT debate is that kindergarten has become too academic. Kids that age need to play, move their bodies and learn how to socialize with each other. While some may be precociously learning to read, academics shouldn’t really be the focus of the kindergarten year. Instead, it’s about taking a wide range of developmental readiness and ability and getting all those kids ready for the academic work of first grade.

It may not be kindergarten age limits that need to change but kindergarten itself. A kindergarten focused more on social skills and learning readiness would meet the needs of a wider range of kids than one focused on test prep.

Still, we have the kindergartens we have. As parents, we each have to decide when our young kids are ready to launch into that arena. My kids both have summer birthdays. Each is the youngest or second-youngest in her class. I never considered red-shirting though. My oldest was more than ready for kindergarten. Going to school at all was her idea. The little one is thriving in preschool, and I’m sure she’ll rock kindergarten when her turn comes.

On the other hand, I’ve seen kids older than mine struggle with the rigors of a classroom. Some of them might have really benefited from an extra year at home, or another year of preschool. I never considered red-shirting my kids, but I understand why parents make that call.

What do you think? Should the age cut-off for kindergarten be moved back? Does red-shirting make sense given the way kindergarten is taught today? What will you do with your child?

Photo: tanya_little

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About Sierra Black


Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Ready For Kindergarten? The Great Debate

  1. Elizabeth says:

    What is really needed, of course, is a way to make the decision more individualized and that would cost money and create hard(er) feelings. Yeah, not gonna happen.

    Our daughter is ready at 4.5–she’s academically past kindergarten already, she’s so socially precocious that every professional she encounters comments on it, and she’s tall for her age. But her birthday is past even the private school cut-offs, so she’ll be 5.8 when she finally starts.

  2. Sara says:

    Your daughter might be socially ahead now but would she be when she’s 15 or 17 and leaving for college? I really dislike the idea of kids graduating from high school on time and not being (at the least a month or two) legal adults that can sign for their own medical care, drive after 10:00pm and not be effected by city curfews.

    The cut off dates need to the standardized nationwide and I think Sept 1 is a good standardized date. I’d never heard of readshirting (except in really rare cases) until I moved to a state with a late cutoff date. Parents are less likely to redshirt when the cutoff date is in sept and the new curriculum’s demand that the average age of the kids in the class be older than five.

  3. Mandy says:

    After reading this whole article I still have no clue what ‘red-shirting’ means. Can somebody help me out here?

  4. Nicole says:

    Mandy, the term we use for it here in So Cal is a “bonus year.” How I dislike that term… It seems like heavy-handed positive spin on a bad thing. And yet, with a summer birthday boy and a private school in mind for him, here we are, taking a bonus year. He’ll start kindergarten when he’s 6. The school didn’t give us a choice. For boys especially, at least around here, some schools think older is better (or at least, behaviorally easier).

  5. Rowan says:

    The Globe & Mail is doing a year-long series on kindergarten from a Canadian perspective:

    The latest article is a nice look at how play-based kindergarten can improve self-regulation:

  6. K5Learning says:

    Why do we put such kudos on putting our 4 year-olds in Kindergarten? Does it give the mothers of those “early learners” bragging rights? Shouldn’t it be about each individual child’s readiness to learn? That learning doesn’t just happen at school, but also at home. What’s wrong with letting your child stay another year at pre-school (usually half-day) and spend the afternoon with your child reading a book or do simple math games if that’s what they like to do.

  7. Karen says:

    The cutoff in my state is Sept 1st. My daughter has a late August birthday, and my son has an early November birthday – I’m seeing both sides of the spectrum here.

    My daughter was academically ready, but could probably have benefited from an additional “red shirt” year in preschool because her emotional readiness was iffy. Because of this, she became a target for a bully early on in her schooling (first grade!) If I had to do it over again, I would give her that red shirt year. I see it now, even in 4th grade. The other girls are just always a little ahead of her physically, and emotionally.

    My son, on the other hand, could handle K without any problems right now. He is more emotionally ready than our daughter was at the same age – you can
    just tell.

    For these reasons, this is why I think it’s perfectly reasonable to move the cutoff to the end of the preceding school year. If your child hasn’t turned five by June ____ (last day of school year) then they wait. The summer birthday problem would be solved.

    The issue of quality preschool accessibility is a big one, but that, in my opinion, goes beyond what date the cutoff happens to be.

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