Are we experiencing a ‘graying of kindergarten’?

Red-shirting kindergartners!

This is the practice of holding a child back from kindergarten so he or she can start school at age 6 Ė older, bigger and more mature than his or her 5-year-old peers. This is happening more frequently now, especially with kids with summer birthdays, close to the cut-off dates for entrance.

In Durango and Ignacio, children must be 5 before Oct. 1 to start kindergarten. In Bayfied, itís Sept. 15. So, children with birthdays in July, August and early September are going to be much younger than their counterparts who may be turning 6 in October.

Increasingly, parents are considering this option of waiting until 6, so their children can be the oldest, and hopefully be more of a leader, rather than follower. They also believe these kids will have advantages athletically (bigger and stronger) and socially (driving cars earlier, dating earlier). This trend is happening with 9 percent of kindergartners and 12 percent of first-graders in the U.S. It is more common in affluent communities, in private schools, with boys and with white kids. These are the kids who are least at risk.

Itís funny, because we used to want our bright kids to skip a grade, to stay stimulated and motivated. Being in an environment with older kids, they always had someone to learn from. Now, itís just the opposite, holding them back to give them an edge.

The term red-shirting came from college sports, where a delay of an athleteís participation lengthened his or her period of eligibility. In a red-shirt year, the student attends classes and practices with the team but doesnít compete, therefore, using five years to complete four years of eligibility, often adding size and strength before participating.

Studies are all over as far as to the effect on children. They show some advantages with academics and confidence in elementary school. However, teachers are finding it difficult to teach to a class of children who may be in an 18 month age range, there seem to be more behavior problems at adolescence and more use of special-education classes. Other studies show that by fifth grade, children who are surrounded by older kids do better, and kids who were red-shirted in kindergarten level out with their own age group at that time.

In some early education classes, multi-age groupings are integral to learning. If we mix 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds together, we get children learning all kinds of things from each other. Older kids support and solidify their learning by showing younger kids. Younger children are absorbing many things by watching older kids in their environments, and kids in the middle do both. After all, life is not based on age. No one says that this job can only be filled by a 25-year-old or a 37-year-old. Public school is the only place where people are segregated by age. Maybe this issue is making schools really look at mixed-aged classes. Look what itís bringing up for parents.

In this age of hyper-parenting and high stakes early education, parents play Mozart to babies still in the womb, give Chinese lessons at age 2 and try everything to give their children an edge. Some parents are moving to the suburbs to red shirt because, for example, the Chicago School District doesnít allow this.

Is red-shirting manipulating the system? Playing the birthday numbers game? Using status for gains? To me, itís about competition, and wanting the best, the biggest and the brightest.

It is an interesting phenomena. We all want the best for our children. But whatís happening to natural development and following the lead of children, instead of forcing them into situations that may not be appropriate for them? What if all families make this decision? What if all kindergartens become filled with only 6-year-olds? Then, will it be 7- and 8-year-olds? Is this the ďgraying of kindergarten?Ē

Martha McClellan has been an early care child educator, director and administrator for 36 years. She currently has an early childhood consulting business, supporting child care centers and families. Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.