A 60 Minutes segment this week focused on “redshirting.” That’s the practice of not starting a child in kindergarten until after his or her sixth birthday. It isn’t because of school-district rules, but is something that parents do to give their child an advantage from kindergarten and beyond.
The segment has generated a lot of conversation both online and in neighborhoods and preschools. Including the one my kids attend. As the mom of a boy with an August birthday and a September 1 cutoff in our school system, I was torn about the potential advantages of an extra year of preschool. (My husband was not.)
I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with Ann Densmore, EdD, an expert in language and social communication skills in children and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler. While the 60 Minutes piece suggested that some parents hold children back from kindergarten to gain competitive advantages, Dr. Densmore pointed out that many parents are responding to the shift in what kindergarten is. “Standardized tests and other pressures have changed the trajectory of elementary education. This isn’t your mother’s kindergarten! Gone are the days when kindergarten teachers hold up a letter and ask the class to name it. Today, kindergarten is drawing, writing, literacy, reading, and science and math and all those subjects that kids didn’t used to get until first or second grade.”
What’s a parent to do?
Dr. Densmore doesn’t believe that holding kids back from kindergarten entry is the total solution. It isn’t necessarily better to have kindergarten classes full of 6- and 7-year-olds. One way parents can help prepare their children is to ensure that there is adequate facilitated play in preschool. That means adults engaging with children during play to help them develop negotiation skills or to share complex ideas. “Research shows that play actually leads to improved academic skills. In this fast-track world, it may be hard to believe that play is critical for brain development, but it is. Play, which is really a child’s ‘work,’ contributes to cognitive, physical, social, and emotional growth. And it is the cornerstone of a child’s well-being,” Densmore told me. The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers lots of information about the benefits of play and how parents and teachers can help facilitate it.
On the community level, Densmore encourages parents to take an active role. Parents should talk with teachers, principals, and other parents. Look for preschools with facilitated play as the center of their curriculum. Challenge school committees to reconsider whether standardized testing in the lower elementary grades is a good idea. Pressure to prepare kids for these tests starts as early as kindergarten.
No matter when your child starts kindergarten, it’s a new beginning for him or her—and for you. Dr. Densmore encourages parents to keep themselves on an even keel and project a steady, positive attitude. And there are many ways (beyond the myriad children’s books on the subject) to help prepare your child. ” See if you can meet the teacher before September. Ask the teacher if you can take photos of the room. Talk to your child about the routine in kindergarten and give him or her a schedule using pictures or words, depending on your child’s reading level. The more your child and you know, the more comfortable everyone will be when starting this new chapter.”
As with so many things in parenting, you can only be so prepared. I sobbed when I dropped our son off on his first day—not delicate weeping, but chest-heaving sobs. He was fine, and somehow thrived.
Your Successful Preschooler, published by Jossey-Bass in partnership with Harvard Medical School, offers parents concrete advice and strategies for helping their young children develop the social skills that will set them up for learning and enable them to develop and maintain friendships with more ease.