I'm glad I didn't 'redshirt' my child

Tuesday , April 18, 2017 - 4:00 AM1 comment

ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group

CHICAGO — There are a few precious moments in every parent's life when you realize you didn't inadvertently torpedo your kid's chances at success and happiness. Last week, I had one.

My vindication came courtesy of a new paper to be published in the Summer 2017 issue of Education Next, a policy research journal. The paper focuses on all the reasons that "academic redshirting" — delaying a child's entry into kindergarten in order to derive benefit from an extra year of physical growth and social-emotional maturity — can potentially do more harm than good.

"Redshirting is generally not worth it," write authors Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Stephanie Howard Larson, the director of a Montessori school in Wilmette, Illinois.

In fact, they write, "the benefit of being older at the start of kindergarten declines sharply as children move through the school grades." And, notably, "For the older students [who were redshirted] ... the positive impacts of being more mature are offset by the negative effects of attending class with younger students."

This was music to my ears.

My youngest son's childhood nickname was "The Wiggler" because even in the womb he was in perpetual motion. He was that toddler who could not sit still, and eventually became a troublesome preschooler who irritated his teachers.

There was seemingly no end to the phone calls and notes home to discuss behavioral issues: refusal to sleep at naptime, tugging on peers' hair or clothes, reluctance to participate in quiet activities.

His birthday is in early August, close to our state's September 1 cutoff, and we agonized over whether to let him proceed to kindergarten. And then, for the next 10 years, we agonized over whether we failed him by not keeping him out an extra year.

Today, as a sophomore in high school, The Wiggler is still one of the youngest in his class. Until recently he was always one of the smallest boys in his class. And also the most annoying to his teachers who, over the years, continued to send notes home begging us to keep him from tapping his pencils, making silly noises and, yes, wiggling himself practically out of his seat.

But, according to Schanzenbach and Larson, "The research on relative age indicates that being among the youngest in the class has benefits, in both the short and long term. Why? Because older classmates tend to be higher achieving and better behaved. They model positive behavior, and the younger students achieve greater academic gains from learning and competing with older ones. [Two studies reviewed] find that, with age held constant, learning with older classmates boosts students' test scores."

Not only are students who are held back for a year not more likely to be accepted in gifted and talented programs, but the authors conclude that, "Both research and experience suggest that the gains that accrue from being an older student are likely to be short-lived. Because of the important role of classroom peer effects, redshirted children can be educationally and socially harmed by being with others who are performing and behaving at lower developmental levels."

Whew! So I didn't ruin my kid's life after all.

Schanzenbach hit upon the idea of investigating the veracity of redshirting while chatting with Larson about whether Schanzenbach's daughter's development would adequately prepare her to be successful in kindergarten this coming fall.

"This is one of the hottest topics on the playground! Parents often struggle with this decision, and want to know what the advice from experts is, and what the research says," Schanzenbach told me via email. "I just asked [Larson] what she advises parents. And she immediately started describing the potential for mismatch between a student and his/her peers if he is redshirted, which of course is consistent with my own academic research study that documents the importance of peers, and that having slightly older peers has a positive impact."

This is really the most comforting thing we can hear. So much of what parents do revolves around making the best choices for their kids and we always worry that we haven't chosen well enough.

On any given day we must just do our best with the information we have and hope that the scholarly research eventually pats us on the back for not messing up too badly.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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