Julia Park’s height was never a big factor in her parents’ decision to wait a year to enroll her in kindergarten, but at age 6 and 4-feet tall, she was an “above-average” child in her class last fall at Richmond’s William Fox Elementary School.
Each year many parents face a complex and potentially life-altering decision: to hold back or not to hold back? Collegiate School kindergarten teacher Linda Pagel says that, first and foremost, parents should listen to the advice of the child’s preschool teacher.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of decision,” she says, suggesting that parents ask the preschool teacher, and themselves, questions about the child’s intellectual, social and physical development before making a choice.
Under Virginia law, children who turn 5 on or before Sept. 30 are eligible to start kindergarten that fall. But they don’t have to, and more families are choosing to hold their children back a year. If a child’s sixth birthday is after September, his or her parents can request a one-year enrollment delay from the school system.
More parents are taking advantage of this flexibility, as teachers and other educators see academic and social benefits in starting school later. More boys are held back than girls, who typically display maturity earlier. A 2000 report issued by the U.S. Department of Education shows that nearly 30 percent of kindergarteners enrolled in 1998 were age 6 or just below, and anecdotal evidence indicates that trend is growing.
“I think academically she would have been fine, even if we sent her a year ahead,” says Kate Park, Julia’s mother. “Our hope was that it would benefit her in the middle school years. I haven’t regretted it one minute.”
The decision to “redshirt” a kindergartener sometimes involves complicated equations, though.
Clayton Hilbert, who turned 5 at the end of June, was enrolled in a pre-kindergarten class at St. Christopher’s School after his parents discussed several options. Mom Stewart Hilbert says the extra year’s tuition costs weighed heavily on the decision, causing the family to consider sending Clayton to kindergarten at a public school and then repeating the grade at St. Christopher’s or Collegiate.
“A lot of our reasoning was to give him one more year to develop his fine motor skills,” she says. “It’s such a predicament. Do you want your child to be the youngest or do you want your child to be the oldest?”
In her 20 years as a teacher, Pagel has noticed an obvious developmental gap between the oldest and youngest kindergarteners, which are separated into different classrooms at Collegiate. The younger children often have a harder time writing the alphabet, need more help tying their shoes and struggle with motor skills like cutting construction paper and putting pegs into holes. “The youngest are more likely to tire out by the end of the day,” she says. “A few months of maturity is helpful.”
But Greg Muzik, Mary Munford Elementary’s principal, discourages delayed entry into kindergarten. “The state set that date for a reason,” he says, adding that unless the child has a developmental disability, the age difference will not cause long-term differences in achievement. Many of the younger kindergarteners he has encountered were also the brightest. “Kids tend to gravitate toward whatever the curriculum is,” he says.
And just as an extra year’s private-school tuition was a factor in the Hilberts’ decision, the cost of keeping a child in preschool or daycare an extra year is significant for many families.
A report released in December 2006 by the Start Strong Council — commissioned by Gov. Tim Kaine to evaluate state-funded preschool — placed the average annual cost for full-time, licensed childcare for a 4-year-old in Virginia at $7,280.
One of Kaine’s top goals as governor is to make preschool available to all of Virginia’s 4-year-olds, particularly those who cannot afford tuition costs. Last year, 11,300 children, 11 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, were enrolled in the state-funded Virginia Preschool Initiative, which meets the needs of those who don’t qualify for the federally funded Head Start preschool program.
“There is a great deal of research that tells us how important it is for children to have a solid foundation when they start school,” says Kathy Glazer, executive director of the governor’s Working Group on Early Childhood Development. “If they start behind, it’s very hard for them to catch up with their peers.”
Glazer recommends that children entering kindergarten be able to speak in three-to-four-word sentences, wait their turn, raise their hands to be called on, follow directions and recognize rhymes.
National statistics, compiled in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Education, found that the 19,000 older kindergarteners who were studied had more advanced motor skills, were more socially adept and knew more about nature, science and human society. The report also found that 73 percent of the students about to turn 6 were able to identify letters by name, compared to 56 percent of students who were not yet 5. The children in the older group were two to three times more likely to read two-digit numbers and recognize the ordinal positions of objects.
The long-term study, which tracked the students through eighth grade, is expected to be released next year.
The co-opted term “redshirting,” commonly applied to college athletes who forgo playing sports during their freshman year to gain a fifth year of competition at the end, hints at the occasionally competitive motivations driving some delayed-kindergarten decisions.
“The extra year of language exposure can help on SATs,” says Jeanette Linka, a preschool teacher at Richmond’s Second Baptist Church. Her class is for children who were held back a year, mainly children whose birthdays fall near the cutoff date. “A lot of times, it’s just a gut feeling. You need to sort of look down the road and look toward the future.”
Plenty of older students and adults can attest to the effect of delayed formal education. Brad Seagraves, a 2005 graduate of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, started kindergarten on time, but his parents realized when he was in the second grade at Short Pump Elementary School that he was struggling with academics and a lower maturity level. He wasn’t allowed to repeat the grade, though, because he made satisfactory grades.
But instead of going on to third grade, Brad went to St. Christopher’s for a year, where he repeated second grade, and returned to Short Pump as a third-grader.
Overall, he is happy with the decision. “It gave me more experience,” he says. “I might not have been able to [go to U.Va.] if I hadn’t been held back.”
Dr. David Arkin, a Richmond pediatrician who graduated from high school at age 16, says that gender and siblings often influence the decision.
When Arkin’s youngest son, Alex, was 4, he insisted on going to kindergarten because he wanted to be like his older brothers, who were all in school. Alex turned 5 in the first month of kindergarten, made good grades and is now a junior at U.Va.
“It’s important to look at the child and not at their birth date,” Arkin says. “If they’re not ready at the age of 5, they’re not going to be much more ready at the age of 6. The data from educators is that whether you start at 4-and-a-half or 5-and-a-half, by third grade you’re coming out the same. Kindergarten should be fun.”
Kate Park believes that her decision to hold Julia back a year will pay off come middle school, when teenage girls battle self-confidence and maturity issues. “Even back when I was a kid, the mean girls were around, and I wasn’t good at navigating that,” she says. “Julia can tend to be more timid, and I didn’t want her to have the same experience.”
Her daughter, who will graduate from high school at age 19, also will have another year at home before attending college, a fact Park takes comfort in. But she already has seen benefits from Julia’s extra year of freedom from the pressures of school: “I just think that a 5-year-old should have the experience of running around and playing in the dirt a little longer.”