Starting School vs. Red-Shirting: How Do You Decide?

This fall, we are facing a decision for our youngest child on starting school. With an August birthday, we have to choose whether or not she should enter kindergarten. 

And honestly? I have no idea what the right decision is. 

The thing is, this is not the first time we have done this. Our youngest is our 4th child and with each child, we have faced the decision of whether or not to start school or red-shirting them another year to start kindergarten closer to the age of 6. And with each child, we did what I think is the only option you can do as a parent when you don't know what to do — we took it child-by-child and with went our guts. 

With my first child, it was a no-brainer. That child was a typical oldest child who was more than ready to start school. She spent most of her summer laying out her outfits for each day, rearranging her backpack, and practicing her summer packet. She started school and never looked back. My second was also more than ready and I felt 100% comfortable when her time came. 

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Then, it was my son's turn. And boy, was he a lot different than my daughters. My son had a July birthday, which meant he had barely turned 5 when school was starting and we agonized over what was the best course of action for him. The school we were attending didn't offer a Pre-K program, which meant either starting him in kindergarten or having him repeat 4-year-old school again. Neither of those options felt exactly right for him, but we choose what we felt would benefit him the most and enrolled him in kindergarten. In my mind, I felt like he could always repeat a year if necessary, but that keeping him in preschool wouldn't help him grow at all. 

red-shirting

I wish I could tell you that we made the right decision for him, but honestly, I am not sure that we did. The truth is, my son has struggled ever since we decided to enroll him in kindergarten right after he turned 5. Looking back, he could have benefited greatly from another year before plunging ahead into the rigors of academic life (OK, that's maybe a slight exaggeration, but still, kindergarten is not what it used to be, folks). He is now in 1st grade and continues to struggle, especially with reading. Part of it is just who he is but I still can't help but wonder if most of it can be attributed to starting him before he was 100% ready. 

According to some experts, red-shirting –a term that became popular in the realm of delaying students starting school for sports purposes (you know, the older, the bigger, stronger, and faster)–isn't actually as common as you may think. One source estimated that only 5% of students are involved in red-shirting before starting kindergarten. Among that number, perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of red-shirted students are boys with summer birthdays (heeeeyy) whose parents are college-educated. 

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The thought is usually that red-shirted students will be at an advantage, both academically and in maturity levels, being older and perhaps having the benefit of additional preparation before school. Giving kids “the gift of time” is one of the oft-used praises of red-shirting and one that I admit I've felt super guilty about, seeing as I clearly robbed my son of time, I guess (never mind the fact that the boy loved kindergarten and certainly gained a heck of a lot more than he would have with me and his baby sister at home, but oh well …). 

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But interestingly enough, studies on whether red-shirting is actually helpful to kids in the long run are actually really mixed. Some sources have pointed out that the practice, often encouraged by schools, actually financially benefits schools, so it's not exactly a selfless act on their part. The school is getting a guaranteed one more year of funding if you red-shirt and an older, probably more well-behaved child to teach, so there's that to consider. 

More importantly, however, you have to look at the benefits to your child and the research shows that while red-shirted children may gain some short-term initial benefits, over the course of their education, it seems to balance out between red-shirted and non-redshirted children. By high school, in fact, there is virtually no difference. 

The decision about starting your child in school is not an easy one, so in the end, it comes back to my initial advice — take the decision child-by-child, consider your child's unique personality and needs, and, most importantly, trust your intuition. 

Do you plan on red-shirting your child for school? 

What do you think?

Starting School vs. Red-Shirting: How Do You Decide?

Chaunie Brusie is a writer, mom of four, and founder of The Stay Strong Mom, a community + gift box service for moms after loss. ... More

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