Marilyn Martens’ son might have been ready to start kindergarten according to his age, but she felt he wasn’t ready for that big step.
Because she held him back a year, Owen, a first-grader at Shady Side Academy who turned 7 in November, is one of the older kids among his classmates.
He had struggled with shyness and some motor skills, and was at a different level, emotionally and socially, than his peers, Martens says of her earlier decision.
“Giving him the gift of time really helped him,” says Martens, of Wexford. She, herself, is a kindergarten teacher at the academy, with campuses in Fox Chapel and Point Breeze.
“It was a big help for him,” she says. “He was always trying to keep up before, and now, I think he’s … in the right spot for him.”
Holding back kindergarten-age children for a year has become more common in the past two decades, as kindergarten has become more academic, officials say. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 17 percent of kindergarteners in 2009 were 6 or older by October of that school year. Conversely, in 1970, only 5 percent of kindergarteners were that old.
In Pennsylvania — with the exception of Philadelphia — kids are not required to attend kindergarten. If they do attend, they can start as young as age 4, according to the state Department of Education. State law settles how long a parent can hold a child back. A Pennsylvania youngster must enter first grade no later than age 8.
In 78 percent of school districts in Pennsylvania, the cut-off date for a child entering kindergarten is Sept. 1 for the pupil to turn 5. Even more districts in Allegheny County — 85 percent — use the Sept. 1 cut-off, including the Bethel Park, Gateway, North Hills and Pine-Richland school districts. Pittsburgh Public Schools also uses the Sept. 1 cutoff date for kindergarten enrollment.
Examining the pros and cons
Starting school a year later offers advantages and disadvantages. Proponents say it gives a child more time to mature, and enter kindergarten with a better chance of academic, athletic and social success.
However, opponents point out that the age difference among classmates can cause social problems. For young children, an age difference of even a year matters with cognitive and social abilities. Plus, delaying school entry can result in teens being 19, rather than the usual 17 or 18, when they graduate from high school, depending on when their birthdays fall.
Samuel J. Meisels — president of Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school in child development — says that holding back a child whose age and abilities are borderline is tempting, but not a good idea.
“It appears to many of these parents that many of these children will have a disadvantage,” Meisels says.
This tends to be especially a concern for boys, who often mature more slowly than girls, he says.
Yet, this is not necessarily true, says Meisels, who says that kids who start school later than their peers can be more prone to delinquency and social struggles as they grow up.
“It places you in a difficult situation from a social and emotional point of view,” Meisels says.
Parents might think, “My child will have a head start, but in fact, that head start dissipates and fades out over time.”
Holding kids back for a year is also a practice that favors the wealthy, Meisels says, because the only families that can do it are the ones who can afford to keep their kids in preschool.
Lisa Willig, who manages response to instruction and intervention for the Norwin School District, says the choice to send forward or hold back a young child depends on each child’s individual situation. The parents whose children’s birthdays fall in the summer are the most likely to consider waiting a year, since minimum age cut-off dates often are in early September.
“The parents do have that option,” Willig says. “A lot of parents will just say, ‘Developmentally, my child is not ready to come, and I don’t want to set them up for failure. I’ll give them one more year, and let them go in at the top of the class.’ ”
With certain kindergarten lessons, Willig says, educators can see a difference between kids who turn 6 in November, and kids who won’t turn 6 until the following summer. So, holding a child back might be the most sensible thing to do in some cases, she says.
“I always stress to the parents. It’s not that your child can’t climb that hill. They’re just not ready for that hill,” Willig says. “I always tell the parents: You know your child best. Each child is such an individual.”
Should you “redshirt” your child?
If you think your 5 year old should wait another year before entering kindergarten, consider these tips from experts:
• Talk to your child’s pediatrician, and to the preschool teacher. They will have a good idea of your child’s development level.
• Carefully consider the decision after consulting professionals, and seek the best situation possible for your child. The decision to go forward or wait a year is major.
• Visit and research a potential kindergarten program, so you know what will be expected of your child.
• Be sure your child will be in a good preschool program for another year, if you do decide to wait.
• Know that most kids are behind their peers in some areas, but maybe ahead in others. Look carefully at different aspects of learning and socialization to get the big picture, and find ways to address weaknesses.
Sources: Lisa Willig of Norwin School District; Samuel J. Meisels of Erikson Institute