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The Case Against Redshirting

My 4-year-old was born in December, one day before his father's birthday. Amidst all that talk about how life would shift with this addition of a third kid, my husband slipped in one of the few parenting non-negotiables he's ever declared: our son would start Kindergarten at 5, not 4, no matter what.

"Fine," I thought. "As if he's ever going to Kindergarten, this wonderful tiny thing."

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Well, he grew up. And this would have been the year for him to start Kindergarten had I pushed back against my husband's wishes. But I hadn't pushed back. In fact, in California, where we live, the government all but made the discussion a moot point. Starting this year, kids had to be 5 by Oct. 1 in order to enroll in a public Kindergarten program. (Next year, they'll have to be 5 by Sept. 1.) It's nice to have the decision out of my hands, and I don't have to worry about him being one of the youngest in the class, which historically was thought to be a disadvantage.

But wait. There are new studies that conclude with this punchline: it's the younger kids in the class, not the older ones, who wind up on top. Great, now I get to worry about my kid being too old!

Redshirting had long thought to give advantage to kids in highly competitive, academic environments (not to mention, their bigger, more developed bodies offered an advantage on sports teams). Then a report in the New Yorker showed the outcome of data in Norway, where researchers found that kids who were at the very tip of the cut-off dates had higher IQs than the older kids in the same grades. This held for a couple of generations of kids, too, by the way. The researchers looked at the data of children born between 1962 and 1988. The men who started school later also earned less at 30 years old than the younger guys they had in class.

Grit, basically, is the big new buzzy thing we all need 21st century kids to develop

A Swedish study shows a similar outcome after looking at data from people born from 1935 to 1984. Starting school later predicted lower earnings. A 2008 study out of Harvard also found that delayed school meant lower graduation rates in high school and college, with fewer men finishing than women. There was also evidence for lower overall earnings. Yet another study out of Tennessee showed the older kids were also more likely to be held back. But what about all that maturity?!

It's not that being older doesn't have it's advantages. Apparently, early on things go well for the older kids. The problem is that, by middle school, the early advantage has worn off and then some, possibly even calcifying in a lack of initiative or persistence when material starts getting more difficult.

So what's going on? Researchers think that the younger ones, who initially are challenged by the need to keep up with the older kids in class, develop the skills to figure things out. They learn how to mess up and move on, to ask questions and so on. Grit, basically, is the big new buzzy thing we all need 21st century kids to develop for the real world that involves loads of problem-solving. (Don't believe me?)

One way to leverage this built-in challenge system is to institute multi-age classrooms, which researchers have found boost test scores overall, even though the younger kids still outperform the older ones. (An outcome that could be addressed, if you ask me, if multi-age classes were more than two grades.)

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Now let's bring this all back to me. I did always wonder just how bad life could have been for my husband, who started Kindergarten at age 4, college at 17 (on a football scholarship, ahem...) and finished his PhD (double ahem!) at the tender age of 26. I wouldn't mind a similarly horrifying fate for my son.

Instead, according to this data, my boy is at risk for turning into a dumb-ass and a drop-out. Luckily for him, his school is built around multi-age classrooms (three grades in one class!) so when he's not busy shaving during circle time, he can peek at the big kids and even take part in what they're doing.

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