The issue of starting kindergarten doesn't seem like something that could have life-altering consequences. Learning numbers, letters, colors and songs seems to be a pretty simple regimen for the average 5-year-old. But with the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act, mandatory state testing and increased competition for slots at top colleges, parents are now wondering if five is the best age for their children to begin their first year of formal schooling.
The decision about when to start a child in kindergarten revolves around cutoff dates. Only 12 states have mandatory kindergarten programs. The rest offer kindergarten as an optional introduction to formal schooling. All states have cutoff dates -- the date by which a student must be age 5 to enroll for a given school year. Concerns arise when the cutoff date is close to the end of the calendar year -- November or December -- because this enables 4-year-olds to enroll for the school year. A study in Canada revealed that enrolling at such a young age may be detrimental to students, leading to a higher retention rate in third grade and other academic problems.
To alleviate concerns about a child's immaturity or to maximize a child's chances of succeeding in kindergarten and beyond, some parents have turned to a practice called "redshirting," a term borrowed from college athletics that refers to freshmen sitting out a season to gain strength and maturity. In the case of kindergartners, the term refers to waiting until a child is 5 or even 6 to begin kindergarten. Some of the reasoning behind this practice comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers," which studied Canadian hockey players and found that those who began youth hockey programs later because their birthdays were late in the year -- September to December -- were among the most successful players in adulthood.
Academic and Social/Emotional Issues
Gary Painter, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, conducted a study on redshirting among kindergarten students. He followed the students to their mid-20s and concluded that there was no discernible benefit to delaying entry into kindergarten. And, according to Samuel Meisels, Ed.D., of the Erikson Institute, redshirting may cause social and emotional problems later on in high school when these children are 18 to 24 months older than their peers.
Parents Know Best
In most states, parents can make the final decision about whether to start their child in kindergarten early or late. Parents should base their decision on what they know of the child's development. More important than the age at which to start your child in kindergarten is preparing him to read -- as well as pay attention, sit still and take turns -- prior to entrance into the school system, according to Richard Gentry, a reading expert, in an article in "Psychology Today."
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