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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten

Until a few minutes ago I had never heard of "redshirting" although I was familiar with the concept. Some parents want to hold their children back from kindergarten (or have them repeat kindergarten) so they will be older and more mature than the other students in their class. A school teacher advised us to do that for one of our children but we adamantly refused. Best decision we ever made concerning the education of our children.

When I was growing up the best and brightest students were allowed to skip a grade if they were doing well. (I took grades three and four in a single year.) It was a mark of achievement to be among the youngest in your class, especially if you were doing as well, or better, than the other students. On the other hand, if you were the oldest in the class then your achievements were discounted because you had an intrinsic advantage.

When I was growing up it would have been psychologically devastating to be the oldest student in the class and not be at the top of the class academically. (That's partly because the oldest students were usually the ones who had flunked a grade.) I wonder if parents who hold their children back have ever thought about the potential negative consequences? What happens if your child is just average and redshirting doesn't work?

Here's a 60 Minutes segment on redshirting. It features two people from the University of Toronto: writer Malcolm Gladwell (B.A. 1984, Trinity College) and economist Elizabeth Dhuey a professor in the Department of Management.


  1. I liked Ryan Gregory's take-down of the hockey assertion by Gladwell...

    -The Other Jim

  2. When I first saw this, my gut reaction was: this is what happens when you combine blind conformity and pointless competition. My gut isn't all that off....

  3. @Anon: I wouldn't call it a take-down. Gregory expresses reasonable scepticism, he doesn't present a conclusive take-down. In fact the little data he shows seems to have a bias towards earlier birth-dates, but N is awfully small.

    In Germany studies have found similar correlations in (association) football, older kids are more likely to be picked by talent scouts, and more likely to wind up in professional football teams.

    As for academics I am not convinced either way.

    1. ...assuming an equal probability of being born in each month. But this is not the case. There are seasonal variation in births, and these vary by region and over time. None of this is factored into these statistics.

      Journal of Biosocial Science (1990), 22 : pp 113-119
      Social Science & Medicine. Part D: Medical Geography Volume 15, Issue 1, February 1981, Pages 103–109.
      Human Ecology Vol. 15, No. 3, Sep., 1987 289-30.

      -The Other Jim

  4. Here's a website with info on "relative age" for hockey (cut off Jan 1), soccer (cut off Aug 1), baseball, school acheivement (relative to school cut off date), and a few "self esteem" measures. Looks pretty reasonable to me (although a lot of it is based on Canadian kids, so don't know how well that would translate to the rest of the world). :-)

    (it's a single page web site: the menu buttons at the top just jump down, so easier to read by just scrolling down from the opening view)

  5. Redshirting seems odd to me as well. Like other kids I know, I skipped second grade. We were impatient and tended to be bored. Does that make us blue shirts? In any event, I did quite well in school and real life.

    When Star Trek first aired I wasn't aware that the redshirts were expendable, because I watched it in black and white. Nowadays I tell kids my beard is white because we didn't have color back then.

  6. Over the years, several teachers suggested that my kids should be held back due to their lack of social/emotional maturity. Not only that but they both had birthdays late in the year, and were shorter than average for their age. On the other hand, they were already bored in school, and I can't imagine how awful it would have been for them to be forced to repeat a grade. (I did an accelerated grade 3-4 in the 1960s, but that practice had fallen out of favour by the time my kids were in elementary school.)

  7. I spent five years in elementary school participating in an experiment that is relevant to this discussion. The experiment actually ran for the full six years (grades one through six) but I moved into town at the start of grade two and was added to the experiment at that time. There were about a dozen of us and, roughly speaking, we were allowed to proceed through the course materials as our own (group) rate. By the end of grade five, we had completed up to the end of grade six. Our parents were offered the choice of either going directly into grade seven in the next school year or spending the next school year taking a very customized / enriched six year of elementary school. My parents, like pretty much all of the other parents I'm told, said that they did not want their child to go directly into grade seven but that if any child went directly into grade seven then their child should also. Since no parent insisted that their child enter into grade seven right away, we (almost) all spent the next year learning all sorts of interesting stuff (it was an amazing year that I still look back on fondly about 45 years later).

    The 'almost' caveat is the part of this story which is relevant to this blog article. One of the students in our little group moved to a nearby town along with the rest of their family at the end of 'grade five'. Since the school in their new town was not in a position to offer any sort of customized / enriched sixth year of elementary school, the student was effectively forced to proceed directly to grade seven. I happened to run into the student when I was in high school (about grade eleven if memory serves). I talked to her a bit about her experiences having been placed into grade seven a year early. She felt that she had suffered quite a bit because she was not emotionally or physically on par with her classmates. She had managed to get through junior high and was doing OK in high school but clearly felt that she would have rather been given the opportunity to take the customized / enriched sixth year of elementary school that the rest of us took. In comparison, every one of the students in our little group had flown through junior high and were well into high school with near the top of the class grades and decent to good social situations and such.

    I for one am quite glad that I was "held back" at the end of grade five. I'm not sure if the opposite experience of being a year older than one's classmates would be quite as problematic as being a year younger but I suspect that someone in such a situation would be bumping into small, medium and maybe even the occasional large issue resulting from their being a year out of step.

  8. My verbal fluency is high whilst my mathematical -spatial is quite low. So, I had to experience egregious frustration! And I never have use for more than simple math for which I use a calculator!
    I read over the Internet over twenty languages.
    The nation's need for scientists and engineers does not depend on harming those who don't benefit from such1 Indeed, it is well established since the thirties, I think, that no one needs math for logical skills. And research since establishes that learning other languages does benefit students, but for those who couldn't fathom any, no compulsion should ensue.

  9. This discussion prompts (not begs :) the question: Is school (especially elementary school) about intellectual learning, or is it about socialization? Danny was exceptionally lucky that his extra year was intellectually enriching, but it seems to me that many are suggesting that kids who are academically ready for more advanced learning need to be held back for social reasons. "Binning" kids by age is a logistical convenience, but I'm not convinced that being thrown in to a classroom with a couple of dozen chronological peers is necessarily an effective method of socialization, nor that using social abilities as the primary measure of "readiness" does the child (or society) any favours.

  10. Ran into this meme of redshirting for sports when my family moved to Indiana from Connecticut. I graduated from high school at 17 and many of the males were 19 (1976).

    Jeff Sherry

  11. We have kids taking there initial drivers training classes in the summer between 8th and 9th grade. More than 50% of the kids graduating are having their 19th birthday the spring of their graduation. This is all in the holy name of competitive sports. This is how we run our Catholic School system. Fair play, competitive ethics and sometimes even morals are recklessly disregarded. Why, it is more about popularity through association with winning teams, elitist schools, and social status than family values.