Kindergarten cut-off dates; Should you “red shirt” your child or push her ahead?

My daughter was born a few days after our state’s August 1st kindergarten cut-off date.  If we followed state regulations, she would be 6-years-old when she started kindergarten.  Her nursery school would not even permit her to enter the pre-K class until after her 5th birthday.  This seemed ridiculous to me, a former East Coaster that is accustomed to later kindergarten cut-off dates like October 1st (New Jersey), and January 1st (Connecticut).  As a pediatrician, I knew she was ready for kindergarten.  I wanted to push her ahead.  Essentially everyone told me I was crazy.  But I did it anyway—we sent her to a private school that accepted young kindergarteners.  Here’s our story, and the research to support our decision.  Kindergarten

I contacted more than ten schools to ask if they would accept my daughter.  I thought they’d applaud me for not choosing to “red-shirt” my child—hold her back intentionally so that sports and school would come easily.  Not so—all but one principal told me I was making a big mistake.  One school counselor told us to, “leave now.”  An experienced principal of more than 30 years gave me a half-hour lecture about the research against younger kids in kindergarten and why I was wrong to want to push my daughter (whom she never met).  A private school principal told me that she was legally obligated to stick to our state cut-off date because the school received government subsidized milk (there is no such obligation).  But we did the horrific deed anyway—we sent our 5-year-old to kindergarten. 

We sent our daughter to private school for kindergarten with the intent of transferring her into our public school for first grade.  Our public schools will accept your child into first grade as long as they have completed an accredited kindergarten.  Many private schools will not accommodate these kinds of transfers.

We knew our daughter was ready for kindergarten—socially, emotionally, and academically.  If we left her in preschool another year, she’d be with kids more than a year younger than her.  She was already bossy and socially dominant.  I was afraid that leaving her in preschool another year would perpetuate false self-confidence.  I wanted her to be challenged academically at school and learn personal responsibility skills like picking up after herself.  I had no doubt that she would thrive socially.

“It’s better to be the oldest,” people told me.  “Everything will come easily to her—sports, academics, social life.”  But I wasn’t sure I wanted everything to come easily to her.  I wanted her to be challenged, learn to push herself, learn that success comes from hard work, not just innate intelligence.

I worried about the physical aspects of being almost a year older than some of her classmates.  Would she get her period in 4th grade?  Would she have romantic interests before everyone else, become attracted to “older boys” who didn’t have her best interests in mind?

People told me, “You’ll never regret letting her be a child for one more year.”  But time is not free—our daughter will have another year of her life as a young adult.  It’s up to her how she uses this time.  She can easily choose to take a year off from school and travel, do volunteer work, etc.  Maybe she’ll be able to finish her education before having her own children.  I’m happy to give this gift to her.  She gets to decide how to use this “extra” year of her life—not me.

The nay-saying educators who discouraged us from pushing our daughters weren’t all wrong—there is good research that shows that children who enter kindergarten at an older age do better academically than those who are the youngest in their kindergarten class.  This academic advantage seems to last at least through the third grade.  The oldest kids in the class have the best standardized test scores.  This, I suspect, is the real reason why kindergarten cut-off dates have been creeping back in the United States.  The older the kindergartners, the better the standardized test scores, and the better the state’s educational system looks on paper.  But where do we draw the line?

Our states have forgotten something—each child is an individual, not a statistic.  Kindergarten readiness has much more to do with the child’s behavior, abilities, and pre-school experience than age.  The same research that shows the academic advantage of older kindergarteners concludes the following:

          The fact that age-of-entry effects were small in magnitude and dwarfed by other
aspects of children’s family and child care experiences suggests that age at starting
school should not be regarded as a major determinant of children’s school achievement,
but that it may merit consideration in context with other probably more important factors
(e.g., child’s behavior and abilities).
[emphasis mine]

From the National Institute of Child Health and Development

Pushing back kindergarten cut-off dates does not help our children.  If test scores indicate that kids aren’t doing well in kindergarten, making them wait another year for education is not the answer.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on School Readiness:

          Children’s readiness for kindergarten should become an outcome measure for
community-based programs, rather than an exclusion criterion at the beginning
of the formal educational experience. Our new knowledge of early brain and child
development has revealed that modifiable factors in a child’s early experience can
greatly affect that child’s learning trajectory.

For my daughter, kindergarten went very well.  There were no concerns about her social skills or academics.  Sports were the big exception—you can’t get away from grade-level and age when it comes to sports, and being the youngest had its challenges.  She learned to swim after most of the other kids in her class, and swim parties were hard.  She played soccer, and I do feel she was at a disadvantage to the girls who were almost a year older than her.  Now, as a second-grader, she loves soccer and seems to have caught up with her older teammates.

After kindergarten our family made an unexpected big decision—instead of transferring our daughter to public school for first grade, we switched to homeschooling.  There were many reasons for this decision and I discuss them in detail in my article, “18 Reasons Why Doctors and Lawyers Homeschool Their Children.”  Our daughter’s age was not a major factor in our choice to homeschool, but homeschooling has turned out to be an excellent solution to this kindergarten cut-off issue.  Our daughter can move at her own pace academically and socially.  She interacts with kids of mixed ages at our homeschool co-op.  Even PE is a mixed-age class, so she’s not always the youngest athlete.  In homeschooling, grade level has more to do with ability than age.  A child can be in 5th grade math but 2nd grade writing.  Each child gets an education tailored to their individual needs.  Which begs the question, why do we divide up kids by age for school anyway?  Why not divide by ability?  Why not just test kids to see if they are ready for kindergarten?

One principal I spoke with was honest about this.  “We used to test children for kindergarten readiness, but there were too many problems when a child didn’t qualify for kindergarten.  Now we just use a cutoff date.”  Our children deserve better than this.

Here is a list of kindergarten cut off dates by state.  

Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

Comments

  1. I totally agree that our children deserve better than this. We were fortunate that our daughter was born one day before the kindergarten cutoff day of August 31 (birthday is August 30). We entered her into preschool after she had barely turned 3 because we wanted to be sure she had two full years of preschool to give us a chance to assess her kindergarten readiness. But despite the fact that she is already small for her age and the youngest one in her class, she is one of the perfect examples of a child who would have done worse had we waited another year and sent her to kindergarten at age 6. Socially, she has always been mature and makes friends easily. She was comfortable making new friends and being in new situations from day one of kindergarten. As a 2nd grader now, she continues to thrive socially (even though she is small and slower than her peers at the athletic things). She is a super accelerated learner, so she has gone up 1-2 grades for reading, spelling, and math since kindergarten. As a second grader now, she fits in easily with the 3rd graders that she spends half of the day with. I know that she is the exception and I don’t mean to negate the value of research (as a social scientist myself, I am a supporter of empirical support). But it is cases like hers that make me frustrated at the flat cutoff system schools have. Had she been born two days later, she would have been forced to start Kindergarten at age 6… nearly 3 grades below what she would have been ready to do at that point. Its frustrating that children can’t be assessed individually in exceptional situations.

  2. I understand your feelings about a “one size fits all” solution to the age cut off. However, as a mom of 2 boys with April birthdays, being the youngest in the class was very difficult for them. Boys vs Girls, maybe? We know that at a younger age, girls often exhibit readiness for academic lessons before boys and you are dead on about physical ability and age being closely linked. Younger kids have it harder. Yes, kids need to learn that not everything comes easy in life, but do we really need to set them up for extra challenges?
    And in defense of schools who follow strict cut-off dates, they have to deal with a lot of parents who are less involved and educated than you are. How many 2- working-parent household moms and dads or single parents today really spend quality time with their pre-schooler so that they can accurately gauge their child’s readiness for school? I think the number is fewer than it should be. So while you make a good argument for your child, I think your point of view is a bit skewed and perhaps not very helpful for a many parents. Schools do need benchmarks to follow and good screening practices aren’t always in place or when they are, they do not provide enough information for decisions.
    And not every school system refuses to honor the wishes of parents and adheres to rigid cut off dates… our original school district in Ohio was extremely flexible in testing and respecting our wishes on placement in school. The same goes for our current system in Georgia, even if they are a little more rigid. We had a few rough years ( we have a child on an IEP and the other has a visual perception delay) and we made the decision to hold both boys back. It was the best decision for them. Not because we’re trying to “red-shirt” them for sports or give them any unfair advantage, but because they were on the younger side and just not ready academically with their extra needs. We hope it will all even out for them as it seems to have for your daughter, but not every child has a great advocate in their corner. And being a good advocate for your child means that you have to fight for what is right for them. It is what every good parent should strive for.
    I enjoy reading all of the articles posted on this site but I this one really bothered me a little. Our children are only children once. I don’t believe we need to think in terms of “banking a year for them” somewhere down the road if we can. Give them every opportunity for learning and enriching their lives, but let them be children for as long as we can.

  3. Lizette Espinosa says:

    I have a three year old that just missed the cutoff date in California. I think he’s ahead of his time also. I’ve been doing my research and I was thinking of sending him to a Montessori school where he would be in a mixed age group- the first age group is 3-6 years old. That way he can go at his own pace. I agree that there needs to be some individualized assessments.

  4. I am genuinely thankful to the owner of this web site who has shared this fantastic paragraph at at this time.

  5. Amen. Since when was having things come easily a good thing? Doesn’t do much to build character or resilience. And why do these theories insist on lumping all boys together and all girls together? Children are ALL so different.

  6. Jane Daas says:

    My husband and I received this same kind of advice from many in the school system, when our daughter was five. Indiana’s cut-off date then was June 1st, which was the earliest in the nation. Our daughter has a June 11 birthday. The principal at the public school she later attended basically told me that I was wrong to think she was ready, and that I might be ruining her life! She would not allow her to be tested for possible early admittance. Both our preschool teacher and our pediatrician thought she was ready. My husband and I knew she was too. We sent her to the local Catholic school for kindergarten and first grade. She had a great experience and excelled. Yes, some of her friends were a year older and were ahead of her in reading and sports until third grade. Then there did not seem to be a difference. Our daughter is now almost 20. She graduated 7th in her class, was a leader in many extracurricular activities, and had high SAT and ACT scores. She is doing well in a competitive environment at her university’s business school. However, with our son who is now in third grade, we made the opposite choice and held him out until he was six. He is just as bright as his sister but was not nearly as mature as she was at age five. He was a follower in preschool and small for his age. We were just as sure about holding him back for a year as we were about sending his sister at five. He has become much more of a leader in his class than I believe he would have been. I believe this enabled him to have more confidence too. Two different kids, two different decisions. Both choices the right ones for each individual.

  7. Archisman says:

    Kathleen,

    Thanks for the article. I am in the same situation with my daughter who is missing the cut-off date at Missouri by 10 days. I have been calling the schools and getting negative response so far. I live in St Louis and it seems from your bio that you are a resident of St Louis as well. I am curious to know which private school(s) in the St Louis area are ready to accept children who missed deadline by few days but are ready otherwise. If you can share, I would really appreciate.
    Thanks

  8. Shfijo says:

    I held my November baby son back, and I’m glad I did. School for bright children is simply boring. But if you are on top of it, it is totally manageable at the elementary school level. Adolescence is the toughest for a child. Speaking as a child who was pushed ahead as an October baby, to be the youngest and smallest in high school is very tough socially. Being older allowed my son to develop a great sense of confidence. He was a positive leader among his peers. If you are able to put in the time and effort to navigate the boredom in elementary school for the child, life completely changes in high school. Good high schools will have college prep, honors and AP programs that your child can flourish academically. My son was able to hang out with his age group and still become an AP State Scholar (passing 7 AP tests with a score of 4 or above). He never felt socially out of place. When he graduated at 18, he was old enough to take a job as a camp counselor. As an October baby, most of my friends were in the grade below me. Also, I always felt out of place looking for a job until after I turned 21. I wasn’t able to get the jobs of my grade-level peers because I didn’t meet the legal-age requirements. Best to keep your children home an extra year while they are young, you have influence, and they enjoy learning things from you, instead of having them float around in their young adulthood with one year less of maturity to make adult decisions. My November baby graduates from college this year. After graduation, I’m hoping that he finds a full-time job and does not prolong his early adulthood as a dependent in my house, eating my food, not paying rent and bossing me around, because he really think he knows it all right now….

  9. Maggie, Mom of 3 says:

    I am reading this story and also wondering about the birthday cut off issue. The cut off here is Aug 1 and our son makes that cut off by a few days – because be was born 6 weeks early. He is already signed up for the fall but now I am wavering. He was so tiny and has had many medical issues in his life that I am fairly positive he would have needed that extra year if not for the fantastic pre-k program he has been in. I know academically he is ready but as his mother I struggle with what is right for him on a more emotional level.

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