January 14, 2018 7:00 am
Updated: January 14, 2018 3:28 pm

Redshirting: What parents should know about delaying school enrolment

Older students tend to fare better, studies show. But that doesn't mean holding back younger kids is a good idea.

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Taleah Clarke has no doubts. For her November baby, hitting junior kindergarten at age three was the right thing.

“He went to school and that was it,” said Clarke, a Toronto-based mother of two. The family didn’t even consider the option of holding him back until they heard other parents at kindergarten talking about it.

Even so, Clarke has no regrets. Her son is “thriving,” she told Global News.

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Alison Dare, another Toronto mom, is less sure. Her family had just moved from British Columbia, where she says holding kids back is much more common than in Ontario, when her elder son, born at the end of December, hit junior kindergarten.

“I felt almost pressured to sign him up,” she said.

Now in second grade, he’s doing well, but “socially he gravitates toward younger kids,” said the mother of three, who worries he might not be able to form strong friendships with children in his own cohort.

Deciding whether or not to postpone kindergarten or Grade 1 for kids born just before the enrolment cut-off date is something many parents agonize over these days. And turning to friends and acquaintances often yields an unhelpful cacophony of different experiences and advice.

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The idea of holding late-birthday kids back became common after Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers seized on research suggesting that being relatively old in one’s school cohort is an important predictor of success. Older kids, in other words, are more likely to dominate academically, emotionally, and in sports, which gives them a long-lasting advantage in life.

Gladwell’s book helped popularize the practice of academic redshirting, a concept borrowed from U.S. college sports where coaches sometimes won’t play freshman athletes in official games in order to give them a year to improve before starting their period of eligibility. A similar thinking generally informs parents who postpone school entry.

But what does the research actually show?

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There is strong evidence that older kids tend to have a lasting advantage

“There’s a lot of research that shows that being relatively old in your class has all kinds of advantages,” said Elizabeth Dhuey, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, who focuses on early childhood development.

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Older children, regardless of gender, tend to perform better than their slightly younger peers according to a variety of metrics, from test scores, through developmental milestones, to personality traits such as leadership.

And although that advantage shrinks with age, it doesn’t disappear, said Dhuey. It persists “all the way up to university.”

Older kids have a higher probability of pursuing higher education and getting into a better school. They’re even more likely to enjoy higher earnings throughout their working lives, said Dhuey.

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The benefits of earlier birthdays are visible as early as kindergarten. A recent study by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which operates with a Jan. 1 cut-off date, found that children born between the beginning of October and the end of December consistently lagged their classmates in every domain of early childhood development, from gross and fine motors skills, through social competence to emotional maturity. In fact, those born in the last three months of the year were more than twice as likely to struggle meeting the demands of kindergarten than those born between January and March.

And then there’s the fact that older children tend to be, simply put, bigger. For example, in the U.S., a boy born in the three months before the kindergarten cut-off date, who is in the bottom third of the national height distribution, will likely be the fourth-shortest kid in a class of 24, according to an article published in EducationNext by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Stephanie Howard Larson, a Montessori school director.

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But does this mean you should hold back your late-birthday kid?

Given the pile of studies that show older and more mature students enjoy all kinds of advantages, it’s easy to see how the idea developed of redshirting children who would otherwise be among the youngest in their cohort.

But there is little evidence that it’s better for these kids to be held back than to start the academic year among relatively older peers, said Dhuey.

There may be a case for postponing school for children with birthdays in the month before the enrolment cut-off date, but it’s far from clear whether doing so for those born earlier in the year is a good idea.

“When I hear someone saying, ‘I sent my October baby to school and he’s fine,’ I’m like, ‘yeah, that’s what I would expect’,” said Dhuey, speaking in the context of a Jan. 1 cut-off date.

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Postponing enrolment for children born more than a month before the deadline means they will be significantly older than their classmates, which can have drawbacks. Kids who are too far ahead of their peers can become bored and demotivated in class, which can lead to behavioural problems, Schanzenbach and Larson suggest.

On the contrary, the influence of older kids, who model more mature behaviour, can be very positive for younger ones, they write.

And Dhuey adds that being biologically older is truly beneficial only starting in Grade 1 rather than in kindergarten, where learning is still based on play. The idea that redshirting may be more appropriate for boys rather than girls, a belief many parents seem to share, isn’t supported by the evidence either, she said.

Even for children at the low end of the developmental spectrum, postponing kindergarten may be detrimental, according to Schanzenbach and Larson. It’s not uncommon for kids who lag behind on some developmental milestones to quickly make up the lost ground. The two advise redshirting only in cases of “extreme developmental delay, outside of the normal range.”

In sum, the overwhelming evidence that older kids fare better “is a valid concern for parents but not one for which we have clear answers,” said Dhuey.

If anything, she said, “it’s clear that you want to time the birth-time of your baby.”

For children who are born just before the enrolment deadline, though, redshirting doesn’t necessarily fix the problem and may create new issues.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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