When it came time to enroll her third child in kindergarten, Stephanie Snyder of Indio, Calif., was in a bit of a quandary. Her son Nicholas would actually turn 5 before the school’s cutoff date, but just barely. His mid-October birthday meant he would enter at age 4 and spend that year, and likely all the ones following, being among the youngest in his class. The same dilemma had not presented itself when her two older sons started kindergarten because they both had spring birthdays. Ultimately she and her husband, Tim, decided to have Nicholas remain in a preschool setting another year. “It could have worked either way,” Stephanie says now, some eight years later. “But I really think he’s benefited socially, emotionally, and academically by not being the youngest in his class all these years.”

Perhaps you’re considering postponing the kindergarten enrollment of your age-eligible child as the Snyders did. If so, you’re not in a minority. This practice is commonly referred to as “redshirting”—a term that comes from the world of college sports and describing athletes who sit out a year or more to extend their time of playing eligibility. Coaches also figure that by keeping certain athletes off the field for a year, they’ll have more time to grow and develop their skills. Many parents with children poised to start school have adopted the same line of thinking. Preface “redshirting” with the word “academic,” and you have a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. But are you really doing your child a favor by having him sit on the bench, so to speak?

“Depends on the child,” says Lilian G. Katz, codirector of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting and a professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There is such a distinction between academic and intellectual goals for young children and when and whether a child has achieved them. That alone can play an enormous role in determining if he or she is ready for kindergarten or even 1st grade.”

Redshirting More Common Today

Only 9 percent of children were being redshirted back in the mid-1990s. By 2007, 16.4 percent of children entering kindergarten were age 6 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The jump likely has to do with schools’ increasing emphasis on academic achievement and parents’ growing attentiveness to their kids’ emotional needs. And since boys’ neurological maturity occurs slightly later than girls’ does, it’s no surprise they represent the lion’s share of these statistics, especially if a birthday happens to fall in the latter half of the year.

Hemet, Calif., mother Lisa DeLuna wonders whether her son, Jacob, might have benefited from being held back. He started kindergarten mere weeks after turning 5, and he strained mightily to keep up—socially and academically—not only that year but for the next three. She attributes his struggles to a lack of self-confidence. “He’s always been tall for his age, and people assume he’s older than he is,” she says. “He seemed ready for kindergarten at the time, but it wasn’t until 3rd grade that things really began to kick in for him.”

Conversely, Maplewood, N.J., mom Anna Sandler has few qualms about daughter Molly, who is also a 3rd grader, being the youngest in her class. She celebrates a December birthday, and some students are as much as 14 months older. Molly also has a sister with a September birthday who just started kindergarten and she, too, is the youngest in her class. “I didn’t hold either of my girls back. They’re both very verbal and actually quite tall for their ages so it’s worked out for us,” Sandler says. The only issue she can recall is when Molly was in 2nd grade and her handwriting compared unfavorably to others in a classroom display. Now, a year later, her fine motor skills have caught up with the skills of older kids and her handwriting shows no difference.

What Do Educators Recommend?

For parents on the fence about whether to redshirt, it may be comforting to note that the above children’s experiences dovetail neatly with data compiled by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Our research shows that even if there is a benefit from redshirting to a child in the first year or years, by 3rd grade any differences between children held back and those not is minimal—and often nonexistent,” says Kyle Snow, director of the Center for Applied Research at the NAEYC.

As former president of the NAEYC, Sharon Lynn Kagan recalls that her stance, and that of the organization, was that children should be encouraged to enter kindergarten at their chronological age. She continues to hold that conviction in her present position as codirector of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. “Parents have the right to do what they want to do, but schools have the obligation to tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of individual kids,” she says. “The reality is you’re always going to have some kids that are going to be more advanced and some kids that are going to be less advanced, and redshirting doesn’t really address the problem. The problem that needs to be addressed is what’s going on inside those kindergarten classrooms. Kindergartens need to be ready to accept children with diverse needs.”

If the question continues to linger—should you or shouldn’t you?—remember that it’s an individual decision and that you know your child best. That said, following are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

  • Don’t let a summer or fall birthday automatically dictate your decision regarding kindergarten readiness.

  • Do check out your intended school’s kindergarten readiness screening procedure or tests to get an idea of how your child may fare.

  • Do ask a teacher what is expected of incoming kindergartners and how you might help your child prepare.

  • Do listen to advice from your child’s preschool teacher regarding your child’s readiness. Ask: What are my child’s weak points? In what areas does he surpass expectations?

  • Don’t make your child aware of your own apprehensions. Whether or not you hold him back, approach either decision with confidence and enthusiasm.

  • Do investigate the nature of a prospective kindergarten program. Is it very formal with rows of desks or slightly less structured? Informal learning centers can accommodate a greater developmental range of children than whole-class instruction, Katz says.

  • Do take into account class size. A very shy child might be overwhelmed by a large group but adapt quite readily in a setting numbering 20 children or fewer.

  • Do consider where your child would spend a redshirted year. If this “extra year” before kindergarten is spent in a high-quality setting that nurtures the development of skills necessary for school success, it can be a positive experience, Snow says.