For many parents, the idea of unnecessarily holding their child back a year in school would be unthinkable—but that’s exactly what Doreen Nyback did with both her kids. Eligible to enter Kindergarten but guaranteed to be among the youngest in class, Nyback opted to keep her daughter, Christine, and son, Andrew, now eight and six, at home for an additional 12 months and enrol them the following year, when they would be among the oldest and biggest in their classes—and on the sports field.
While she believes that they were academically ready to begin school at the appointed time when they were still four years old, from a long-term perspective she maintains that it was simply a better plan to keep them back.
“I wanted my kids, down the road, to be older, to be the leaders,” says the mom of two from Sherwood Park, Alta. “I wanted to give them every advantage.”
The Theory Behind Redshirting
Nyback is part of a growing number of parents opting to wait an extra year before enrolling their kids in Kindergarten.
Known as “redshirting” (a term borrowed from American college sports for an athlete who is not played in his freshman year in order to add a year of eligibility when he’s older and more experienced), the trend was popularized by Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. In his 2008 bestselling book, Outliers (Little, Brown & Company), Gladwell popularized the theory that hockey players born in the first few months of the year—and thus the oldest kids on the team—tend to be the most successful.
Since then, a number of parents have applied this type of thinking to an academic environment. And while studies have suggested some distinct advantages, parents and experts worry that the trend is creating an uneven academic playing field—one fraught with problems right from the start.
The practice of holding kindergartners back a year is more common in some of the western provinces, and especially in Alberta—where school boards take a more flexible approach to enrolment timelines and rules.
Jay Smith, a mother of two from Edmonton, says her son Milo, 6, was one of the youngest in his Kindergarten class when he started school in 2012. In Milo’s school board, children may start Kindergarten in September, even if they don’t turn five until the end of the following February.
Smith says her son was the sole student born in the month of January. “Red-shirting is nuts,” she says. “My son was in a Kindergarten class last year with a kid who was about 16 months older than him.”
Jay Smith suspects that at least two or three kids out of 20 in her son’s class were redshirted in Kindergarten. She worries about the social and academic impact on Milo and other kids who enter school on the standard schedule but wind up being so much younger than their redshirted peers.
Jay Smith says she’s also concerned about the challenge teachers face trying to tailor the curriculum when there’s such a broad range of ages in class. On a more philosophical level, she finds the entire idea distasteful and feels that treating school like a competitive sport is wrong-headed and maybe even un-Canadian. “It’s very Amer ican—this notion that life is about dominating your competition from the earliest possible age,” she says. “I find that very sour and depressing.”
So, Does the Science Support Redshirting?
Divisive as the topic can be, experts say there is clear evidence that delaying the start of school gives kids an edge when they get there. Justin Smith (no relation to Jay Smith), an economist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., studied the advantages of age in British Columbia’s public schools.
He compared the academic outcomes of B.C.’s oldest students (those born in January) to its youngest (those born in December) on math and reading tests. Justin Smith found that in Grade 4, the difference was about seven percentage points, but by Grade 10, the January birthdays outperformed the December kids by just two percentage points. “There’s a huge benefit when you’re younger, but that shrinks to something a little more negligible in high school,” he notes.
Justin Smith observes that this is indeed an American phenomenon that’s creeping over the border. While no national data exists here in Canada, he notes that in the U.S.—which is home to a far more competitive school system where students routinely complete standardized tests and are often ranked within their classes—as many as 10 per cent of kids are redshirted.
Elizabeth Dhuey, an economist at the University of Toronto, has studied the phenomenon in 18 developed countries, focusing on students born in January, February and March versus those born in November and December. She found results similar to Justin Smith’s: The older kids in class held a 4–12 percentage point advantage on international math and reading tests in Grade 4 and a 2–9 percentage point edge in Grade 8.
Additionally, in the United States, she observed that kids who were among the youngest in their grade were five per cent more likely than the older ones to be diagnosed with a learning disability. By contrast, older kids were more inclined to take leadership roles (such as captain of a sports team or president of a club) and more likely to take university placement exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
In Canada, the older students were disproportionately represented in university stream courses in high school. “The youngest months were underrepresented by about 10 per cent—that’s big,” she observes.
But both Dhuey and Justin Smith caution that these findings shouldn’t be interpreted too literally. While the numbers may appear conclusive, there’s still no evidence that redshirting your child will reap similar results.
These studies compared academic performance based on birthday and didn’t look specifically at kids purposefully held back to gain an edge, which is a more complicated matter. These students tend to come from families with a higher-than-average socio-economic status who enjoy other advantages that are difficult to control for in a study.
Justin Smith says there are some potential downsides parents may not fully consider when they delay a child’s entry to school. He worries that kids held back may have their circumstances mis understood and be stigmatized as hav ing “failed” a grade as they grow older. There’s often a steep financial cost as well, he says—parents who redshirt must fund an additional year of daycare, and these students miss out on a full year of employ ment income at the other end of the line.
“Yes, this may be one way to give your child an advantage, but there are a million other options that don’t require you to hold your kid back for an entire year from school,” says Justin Smith, including everything from simple, practical—and free—activities like reading to your child on a regular basis to more expensive options like private tutoring.
The Argument For Holding Your Child Back a Year
Cognitively, socially and physically, there can be a huge difference between a four- and a five-year-old, or between a four-year-old and one who is still three, as is the case for plenty of students in Ontario, where kids usually enter Junior Kindergarten in the September of the year they turn four.
With a birthday in late November, Rebecca Evans’ son Boaz would have been three for the first few months of Junior Kindergarten. The Bradford, Ont., mom of three felt that was just too young, noting that Boaz has always been a quiet boy, more comfortable playing on his own. She feared that his social reticence, his young age and the fact that he wasn’t yet confident with his ABCs would put him at a disadvantage from the start, so Evans decided to hold him back a year. “At age three, I just thought that he would be constantly struggling to keep up with the class,” she explains.
However, her local public school wasn’t on board, telling Evans that if she kept him out of JK, they would simply enrol him in Senior Kindergarten the following year. So one year later, when Boaz was four, she placed him in a private religious academy, which agreed to put him into Junior Kindergarten. Now 10 and in Grade 4, she says that her son has flourished academically and socially—she believes, in part, because instead of fighting to catch up, he has always been the oldest in class. “He excels in his school work, he gets along with everyone and he’s a confident boy,” she says.
Indeed, some teachers and education experts say there’s an argument to be made for redshirting in some circumstances. Julie Halbersma is a Kindergarten teacher at Brentwood Elementary School in Sherwood Park, Alta. In her 13 years of classroom experience— 10 of them at the Kindergarten level—Halbersma has observed that the kids who are not yet five at the beginning of the school year, especially boys, often struggle in a number of areas.
She notes that they frequently have trouble with fine motor skills, encountering problems with something as simple as holding a crayon or pencil, are often socially immature and usually have a much shorter attention span, sometimes struggling to sit still for a story lasting just five or 10 minutes. “Developmentally, they’re not ready to do the things we’re asking of them in Kindergarten.”
In fact, her school board, Elk Island Public Schools, recently chose to push back their enrollment age, starting next year. It’s a response, in part, to the number of parents who were holding their kids back. She says that in her current class, the parents of six of the seven kids with birthdays in January and February—who would have been destined to be the youngest in the class in the Alberta system—chose to redshirt their kids.
Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education, adds that many parents are responding to greater academic pressures on kids at increasingly younger ages. She says there’s a new push for kids to read and write earlier in their academic lives— a back-to-basics, achievement-focused trend. A mother of five-year-old twins, she feels that the decision to redshirt may spring less from a competitive spi rit than just simple parental desire to protect kids from this pressure if they don’t feel they’re ready for it.
Vadeboncoeur observes that it’s enormously important to parents—not to mention a major factor in educational success overall—that a child’s first taste of school is positive.
“Kindergarten is an amazing time when kids have their first experiences in formal education, and parents want to do everything they can to ensure that their kids love learning,” she says. Given different circumstances (say, if they had been born late in the year), she might have even considered redshirting her own kids.
The Argument Against Holding Your Child Back a Year
But Vadeboncoeur cautions that red-shirting should never be seen as a great, across-the-board solution but rather one of several solutions that parents should consider if a child seems unready for formal schooling.
Linda Cameron, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), says redshirted kids who are a whole year older than their peers, “may actually feel out of place and even bored in a classroom of younger peers and, as a result, fail to develop proper study habits and coast along through school.”
She adds that redshirting could ultimately become a self-defeating trend—as more and more parents keep their children back, its benefits will be reduced as the classroom fills with similarly older kids.
Even if younger children struggle a bit to start, Cameron maintains that most Canadian Kindergarten classrooms provide a more enriching environment for kids than keeping them at home or having them spend an additional year in daycare. She notes that teachers are trained professionals who, in most cases, listen and respond to their young students to guide and educate them in age-appropriate ways.
Besides, in many provinces the Kindergarten curriculum is grounded in play-based learning, says Cameron. She believes even very young children are better off in this ideal setting. “These kids catch up. If they’re held back, they’ll be in daycare or at home longer, and that won’t grow them more than being with a professional who knows what she’s doing,” she says. “Redshirting them—keeping them back—fails kids.”
But Nyback—the Alberta mom who redshirted both her kids—isn’t worried. Noting that Christine and Andrew have both excelled, academically and socially, she says that she has never second-guessed her decision. “They are so confident. They have a maturity about them,” she says. “You always want your child to be a leader—you’re being a good parent by giving your kid every opportunity to be the strongest leader in the class. I have no regrets. None. Zippola. I’m so happy and proud of my kids.”
Redshirting wasn’t popular back when contributing editor Tim Johnson was in Kindergarten, but he did wear a number of red shirts to class, including a favourite one that featured a rather stylish tractor.