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Academic ‘redshirting’ a kindergarten year parental worry

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John C. Schisler | Trib Total Media
Mason Drizos, 5, plays Legos with his mom Emily at their home in Mt. Lebanon, Friday afternoon, Nov. 7, 2014. The Drizos' decided to hold back or 'red-shirt' their son for a year before attending kindergarten. Mason is currently enrolled in a Pre-K school where he is learning more academic-based skills like his letters and numbers to further ready his transition to elementary school. Emily likes the fact that Mason is still able to express himself artistically during this break--- a trait she believe may suffer if he went to kindergarten too soon.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Heather and Christopher Collins sit with their children, Kaylee, 7, and Nik, 5, at their home in Ross on Nov. 7 2014. They decided to keep Nik in pre-K an extra year before enrolling him in kindergarten.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Heather and Christopher Collins sit with their children, Kaylee, 7, and Nik, 5, at their home in Ross on Nov. 7 2014. They decided to keep Nik in pre-K an extra year before enrolling him in kindergarten.

Nik Collins just wanted to play.

The 5-year-old didn’t want to go to kindergarten, and he let his parents and teachers know in no uncertain terms while attending a two-week, pre-K prep course this summer.

“The second week we showed up to the camp, he said ‘Ugh, this place again. I don’t want to do this; it’s no fun,’ ” his mother, Heather Collins of Ross, said.

Teachers agreed Nik was almost ready for kindergarten academically, but he would act out in classes.

So his parents decided Nik — born in July and younger than most of his potential classmates — would stay in a play-focused, pre-K program and wait until he was 6 to enroll in kindergarten.

“I feel like we are going to crush his soul if we put him into kindergarten,” Heather remembered telling her husband, Christopher Collins.

Nik is one of many youngsters being “academically redshirted,” kept back an extra year before enrolling in kindergarten to give them more time to mature and prepare.

Redshirting — a term borrowed from college sports where athletes are kept on the bench for a year until they’re bigger and more skilled — has fueled a fierce national debate among parents, educators, psychologists and researchers as kindergarten curriculums have grown from mostly play to more demanding academic lessons once taught at higher grade levels.

Advocates say redshirting gives children a chance to grow up, benefiting them in the long term and enabling them to begin school on a positive note.

Critics say the practice unfairly labels children as being “behind” at the start of their school years.

Studies of redshirted students have produced evidence bolstering both sides.

Eileen Amato, superintendent of Greensburg Salem School District, said most of the redshirted children in her district are those born in August or July, making them younger than other students starting school.

Amato said she favors redshirting in some cases and delayed sending her daughter, now an adult, to kindergarten, a decision she never regretted.

But officials in the Albert Gallatin Area School District encourage parents to enroll their children at the usual age of 5, even if their birthdays are close to the Sept. 1 cutoff, said Candice Jordan, elementary education supervisor for the Fayette County district.

“You are never sure when children are ready, but the benefits of being exposed to the curriculum, and exposed to the social interaction of being with their peers, can be nothing but advantageous,” Jordan said.

But a similar logic drives parents to wait because they say children are expected to meet higher-than-ever academic standards at younger ages.

“It just seems like it’s not so much the old kindergarten that we used to think of. It’s a lot less play, a lot more academic pressure,” said Emily Drizos, a Mt. Lebanon mother who decided to wait until her son, Mason, turned 6 to enroll him in kindergarten.

“I wanted to give him another year of learning at his own pace and learning through play,” she said.

Worries about rising academic standards are understandable, said Clover Simms Wright, who teaches early-childhood education at California University of Pennsylvania.

Kindergartens have become more academic in recent years, with skills that were once expected of first-graders now being taught in kindergarten or even preschool.

“They fear, rightly so in my opinion, their child being labeled behind or developmentally delayed or something like that,” Wright said.

Research is divided, but most evidence shows redshirting can be beneficial in the short term, Wright said.

However, there is data suggesting children who start school young benefit longer term, quickly adapting to their situations by learning crucial social skills, according to Wright.

Regardless, parents hoping their decision to enroll their youngster early or late will reverberate into the child’s teenage years and beyond are likely just engaging in “wishful thinking,” Wright said.

“There’s data on both sides, but one thing that both pros and cons seem to agree upon is that any gains that a child can make by starting a little bit late evens out by middle school,” she said.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to Wright. The decision must be made based on the needs of the child.

Redshirting’s impact on a child’s development largely depends on the attitude of the parents, said psychotherapist Gretchen Boehm of Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates.

“I don’t think there is any definite right or wrong answer on this subject. There are definite pros and cons to holding a child back,” Boehm said.

Parents who treat an extra year before enrollment as a chance to further develop their child’s skills will likely pass that positive attitude along. Similarly, those who see the need for delay as a bad thing may instill their child with a feeling of inadequacy, she said.

“How they (the parents) choose to deal with the decision will be reflected in the child’s academics and how they develop socially,” she said.

Sometimes parents try to make the decision to redshirt as early as possible, which may be a bad choice, according to Michele Brado, program director at Southminster Nursery School in Mt. Lebanon.

“I think they should make the choice at the very last minute,” she said. This gives parents the chance to see whether their child matures over the summer. “A lot of things can change in those couple of months,” Brado said.

Southminster has seen fewer 5-year-olds in its classes during the past few years, as more districts have been encouraging parents to enroll their students on time, Brado said.

As for Nik Collins, the boy who preferred play to school, he is getting a little bit of both in his pre-K program and is thriving.

“He is just blossoming,” Heather Collins said. “Now, when we talk to him about going to kindergarten when he’s 6, he says, ‘That’s fine.’ ”

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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