At what age should kids start school?

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The big kids with their little sisters.

One of my school mom friends Jean and I would chat for a few minutes after dropping the big kids off (big as in Kindergartner.) We both had daughters who weren’t old enough for school and they loved to play together on the playground while we waited for morning assembly in the amphitheatre.

The school, St. Theresa’s, had a lovely tradition of welcoming parents to morning assembly, where each week a class was assigned the duty of reading Bible versus and announcements.

One day, while the youngers were on the swing sets, the kindergarten teacher asked us if we wanted our young girls to start school the next year.

“No!” I exclaimed. “She’s three!” My friend Jean concurred.

“I know they’re young,” the teacher said. “But I think they’re ready.”

Apparently our overly bright first-borns were making quite the convincing argument to start our second children early. But no. I wasn’t for that. It was around that time that another teacher cornered us on the playground because our darling little girls were heard using foul language! That’s a story for another day.

I read an interesting article today in the Washington Post about ‘Redshirting’ your kindergartner: Is it the right choice in the long run? This article by Lisa L. Lewis discuss the opposite approach. She talks about her own son, who she held back a year because he barely made the cut age wise and she didn’t think he was ready.

If all had gone according to plan, my son would have been one of the older kids in his grade throughout his school years. Even though he turned 5 by our state’s kindergarten cutoff date, we agreed with his preschool teachers’ assessment that he didn’t seem emotionally ready and “redshirted” him by delaying kindergarten for a year.

It worked well for a time, but by second grade, his teacher was regularly sending him next door to a third-grade classroom for math and reading. Just a few weeks into the school year, she told us he really should be in third grade.

I resisted. While the second-grade boys still had small traces of softness, the third-graders had none. Some were a head taller than my son. They wore Nikes, and he still wore Stride Rites. With his emotional immaturity and small-kid vulnerability, masked by a tart-tongued bravado, I worried he’d flounder socially with the older kids.

But he was already struggling, I had to admit, as I consoled him one afternoon during a fit of frustration. I asked if it was hard going to third grade. He said he wasn’t in third grade, or second grade, really, and he felt like he didn’t fit anywhere. He was crying, and it pained me that I’d inadvertently created a separate, lonely category for him, making him feel like an outsider in both classrooms.

As we learned, redshirting — even when done with the best of intentions and with input from educational professionals — may need to be reconsidered as your child develops.

The term “redshirting” originally referred to college athletes who sat out their first year to work on their skills without affecting their eligibility. The intent is similar for would-be kindergartners: By providing younger kids an extra year to develop physically, socially and emotionally, the expectation is that they’ll be better equipped to succeed.

Perhaps the most well-known arguments that support this come from Malcolm Gladwell, who devoted the entire first chapter of his 2008 book “Outliers” to the premise that being one of the oldest provides long-term advantages in school and beyond. In sports, just barely missing the cutoff date means you’re up to a year older than your teammates and likely more physically mature and coordinated. That increases the odds you’ll be a better athlete and thus given more opportunities, he argues, leading to what’s known as “accumulative advantage.” The same dynamic occurs in the classroom, he says.

More recently, a survey of data collected by Truven Health MarketScan Research Database between 2007 and 2015, which was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that older kids are less likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder than their youngest kindergarten classmates.

That’s in keeping with the results of a 2018 report in Health Economics that Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, co-authored, based on children in Denmark. He found that older kids were better at self-regulation than their youngest peers, who tended to be less attentive and had higher levels of hyperactivity. As Dee explained to me, the extra year “often gives children more extended exposure to play-based environments, [which are] really critical for children’s capacity to develop self-regulation.”

My daughter had several friends who were born the fall. Yes, they were young for their grade. The difference in their maturity was noticeable up until second grade. They didn’t seem to have impulse control or be able to sit still for long times. By third and fourth grade it all leveled out and I forgot they were younger. I think they would have been bored to tears if they had been in the grade behind.

As far as sports, I’ve heard of families holding their kids back to get an advantage. Fortunately in swimming that doesn’t work. You’re put in age groups according to your birthday, not your grade level. That’s one more thing why I like swimming. The age is the age and the time is the time. There’s nothing subjective about it.

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Swim team friends at the beach.

At what age do you think kids should start kindergarten? 


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