Send your child to school too soon and they may not be ready. Send them too late and you may be wasting their potential. Is there in fact a right age?

Have you heard of the term “redshirting”? When I first heard it, it conjured up an image of newbie athletes being forced to wear red shirts until they were considered worthy enough to wear the normal team uniform. As it turns out, I was kind of on the right track.

The concept behind redshirting was that some freshman players needed extra time to improve before they were viewed as good enough to play with the rest of the team. Coaches would hold these players back from playing the important games until they were considered ready.

And yes, these players were distinguished from their peers by the red shirts they wore.

Why you should hold your child back from starting school

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote about redshirting in his 2008 bestseller, Outliers, in which he examined research that suggested being relatively older in one’s grade actually led to greater success later in life. According to Malcolm, older kids were more likely to dominate in all possible aspects: academically, physically and emotionally.

Malcolm’s research led to the popularisation of “academic redshirting”, the process of encouraging parents to deliberately hold their children back from starting school.  Academic redshirting was supposed to give children extra time to mature, in the hope they would end up being physically and academically superior when they finally went to kindergarten.

A 2011 study published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs shows that the number of parents choosing to redshirt their children is rising in Australia. The first national estimates taken in 2005 record about one in eight children being held back or delayed from starting school. Ten years later, in 2015, an article in ABC News noted that one child in six is being held back from starting school.

In 2016, just 1391 four-year-olds started kindergarten at New South Wales primary schools, along with more than 53,000 five-year-olds and more than 15,000 who were aged six or older. It’s interesting to note boys are more often redshirted than girls, since it’s believed boys need that extra year to mature as they find it harder to sit still and learn sustained motor tasks such as writing.

But does holding a child back really give them the promised academic and other advantages?

When holding a child back fails

My mother was almost three years older than the other children in her grade when she was finally sent to school. It wasn’t redshirting in the traditional sense. She wasn’t held back to give her any type of special advantage. It was simply the consequence of growing up in a large family, in a time and a place where education for females wasn’t a priority.

I still see the pain in her eyes as she tells me what it was like to be bullied by younger peers for being older and to be constantly beaten by her teacher for not knowing what other students had already learned in previous years.

For her, being the oldest in the class wasn’t advantageous in any way—in fact, it was a definite disadvantage. However, she was determined to overcome this obstacle and through hard work, persistence and strength of spirit, eventually did so. But she never forgot what her experience was like. She vowed that if she ever had children, she would make sure they had the opportunity to attend school as early as possible. And that’s why I started kindergarten at four-and-a-half.

I started school early

From an academic perspective, I seemed ready to go. I’d learned how to read at the age of three—not just words here and there, but fluent sentences and paragraphs. I knew my alphabet and how to count. I had memorised a number of stories and nursery rhymes. By the time I turned four, I could even write. The word redshirting wasn’t in my mum’s mind, let alone her vocabulary. She didn’t think I needed an extra year at home to prove I could keep up.

From a financial perspective, it also made sense for me to start school early. Although my dad had a full-time job, living in Sydney was expensive (yes, even before the era of smashed avocado!) and my mum was keen to put me in school so that she could go back to work.

And from a social perspective, it even worked out. As an only child, I loved playing with other kids and spending time with them in preschool. In fact, Mum often had to drag me away from preschool at the end of the day—I enjoyed the toys and company so much I didn’t want to leave! Starting school early was the perfect opportunity for me to make new friends.

The initial first day of kindergarten went relatively smoothly. Parents of kindergarteners were able to spend part of the first day with them to help make the transition easier. Mum spent as much of the first day with me as she could and thought I seemed fine, if a little quieter than usual. It was easy enough to explain: new environment with new people and new circumstances and I was still getting used to it all.

I was only a few weeks into kindergarten when I suddenly refused to keep going. Every morning, my mum would try to drop me off at school, only to be met by plaintive wails.

“I don’t want to go! Why do you have to go to work? Can’t you stay at home and teach me?” I would beg.

I had never been a particularly clingy child and she couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Eventually she pushed me for an explanation. She found out I was being segregated in kindergarten because I already knew what the teacher was teaching the rest of the class. I was bored and restless because I had nothing to do and, because I was segregated from the rest of my class, I didn’t feel as though I belonged with the others.

Mum spoke to my teacher and my principal and asked if I could be moved up to a higher grade. Although they agreed I was certainly ready academically, they had their doubts about how I would adjust socially to such a move.

“She’s already one of the youngest in her class now,” they pointed out. “She’s comfortable enough with the people in this class but it would be very hard for her to adjust to an even older age group.”

Against my mum’s better judgement, she reluctantly agreed to keep me in the same grade with the provision I would have extra work to do to keep me interested and occupied. To this day, I can still remember sitting alone and reading books about Australian mammals while the rest of my class practised the alphabet. And although I was receiving extra work to do, I still felt like I was on my own and different from everyone else.

Why holding back doesn’t actually matter

Mum started school late. I started school early. Is there a right age to send your child to school? I don’t think there is.

Although what my mum taught me initially put me ahead academically, that advantage naturally dissipated as my classmates learned how to read and write and do all the other things I could do. And the introduction of new concepts such as fractions and decimals definitely put us on a more even playing field!

So while in my experience, there may not be an advantage in sending me to school early, research has also shown redshirting may not be the answer. When America’s Northwestern University professor Diane Schanzenbach and preschool director Stephanie Larson studied children who had been redshirted, they found that while some children benefitted from being held back, their advantages usually dissipate over time. In their article, “Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?”, published in educational journal Education Next, they even cite research that claims younger students may actually gain more significantly from learning with older students.

Dr Claire Campbell, a lecturer at James Cook University in Queensland, agrees that older children are not necessarily more ready for school than their younger peers, but that doesn’t mean sending them to school at four is the right answer either.

There are many important factors that will influence children’s later success in life such as their dedication, persistence and the effort that they are willing to put in. The age that they first start school is not one of them.

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