Q: Our district's choice program offers four kindergarten enrollment options for our son. The classes I've visited seem too academic, with very little play. My son can't sit still, and he's a long way from reading. He'll turn 5 a few days from the cutoff date, so we're thinking of holding him back. What are the benefits and drawbacks?
A: More parents are exploring delaying kindergarten, especially when a child is a "young 5." Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that two decades ago, 9 percent of parents held their children back. Today, according to a recent study from Stanford University, about 20 percent of children enter kindergarten at age 6 instead of age 5.
Some refer to this practice as "academic redshirting" -- a strategy borrowed from sports -- where parents delay a child's entrance into kindergarten in order to allow extra time for socio-emotional, intellectual or physical growth.
What explains the increase? "I think redshirting has taken a new turn because of the Common Core," says literacy expert Dr. Michael Milone. "The kindergarten experience has morphed into first or second grade, unfortunately. Many parents and teachers are expressing strong opinions about the loss of kindergarten. So I'm all for redshirting to ensure that kids get a decent childhood."
Research hasn't provided conclusive guidance about delaying enrollment in kindergarten. There is data showing that early maturity differences have long-lasting impacts: Children who are less mature at the start of kindergarten tend to have lower grades throughout their school careers than those who were more mature. Some studies show that the least mature members of each class were less likely to attend university.
One new study is worth paying attention to, says Milone. It suggests that kids who have a later start show significantly lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity.
"The benefits were found to persist even at age 11," he says. "This is significant."
The study, "The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health," published in October 2015 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, provides strong evidence of mental health benefits in delaying kindergarten. (For more information, go to nber.org.)
Study co-author Thomas Dee of the Stanford Graduate School of Education says in a school press release that the findings show "that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11."
Dee adds, "It virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an 'abnormal,' or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure."
How is a parent to decide whether to hold a child back? "Consider your son's physical, emotional and academic readiness," says Milone. "Consult with his preschool teacher and discuss his kindergarten readiness screening with kindergarten teachers. Ask about class size and the skills each school expects of entering kindergarteners; is it formal or more informal with learning centers?"
If holding him back seems like the best option, decide what your son will do instead of kindergarten to keep him challenged. Ask if your district offers a bridge program between pre-K and kindergarten to keep your son on track academically and developmentally.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)