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What Happens When Your Child is the Oldest or Youngest in Their Kindergarten Class?

It's not clear-cut. Yes, there's a policy and a "cutoff" date, but there's also "redshirting" and testing for early admission. Finding the "sweet spot" can be tough for parents.

Kristin Kildall, Gary Thomson, and son Ewen

Photo: Joshua Huston

To start kindergarten in Washington, a child must turn 5 by midnight of August 31st of that year. That means a kindergarten classroom will have younger, July- and August-born kids, older students born in September and October, and all the kids in between. 

Or at least that’s how it used to be. 

Over recent decades, parents in the Puget Sound area and beyond have increasingly taken the decision of when to start kindergarten into their own hands, holding kids back so they can have another year to become more mature socially and academically, or testing precocious kids for early entrance to spare them the boredom of more preschool.

In the early 1990s, 9 percent of American children were “redshirted,” meaning that they started kindergarten at age 6. Two decades later, that number has more than doubled to 20.5 percent of kindergartners, according to U.S. Census data from October 2013. The shift toward older students is so pronounced that education experts have dubbed it the “graying of kindergarten.”

Some parents hold their kids back in the hope they’ll perform better in school or sports, positioning themselves for a better shot at a good university or athletic scholarship. The term “redshirting” itself comes from college athletes who join sports teams but don’t begin competing their first year of school, giving themselves an extra year to build strength and skills before ticking down their four years of eligibility. 

When Seattle parents Kristin Kildall and Gary Thomson struggled to decide when to enroll their son Ewen — whose August birthday falls 11 days before the state cutoff — they weren’t trying to set a course for an Ivy League school or sports stardom. They were trying to respect Ewen’s academic needs. 

“We looked at how interested he was in going to kindergarten. He was interested in the social aspect of it, but neither of us saw an interest in being instructed,” Kildall said. “We thought if he went to school, he would be the kid who would get in trouble for not sitting and listening.”

“I think most kids are going to adapt. If we had put him into kindergarten earlier, he would have adapted and we would have adapted, but it would not have been as smooth.” So two years ago, Ewen began kindergarten at age 6 at KapKa Cooperative School near the Woodland Park Zoo. Kildall said he’s done well and they’re happy with their decision. In retrospect, she thinks her son also would have been fine if he’d started sooner. 

Edie Welch, daughter of Jennifer Langston and Craig Welch, was always the youngest child in her preschool class and was eager to enter kindergarten at age 4. 

Photo: Joshua Huston

Edie Welch, daughter of Jennifer Langston and Craig Welch, was eager to start kindergarten at age four.

“She was excited about going to kindergarten and didn’t want to be left behind,” Langston said.  

“She was ready for something different.”

Edie’s teachers also thought she was ready, so Langston had Edie, whose birthday is in late September, tested by Seattle Public Schools. The district gave her the green light and she enrolled in McDonald International School, located southeast of Green Lake. 

“All in all, it was the right decision for us,” Langston said. “What you want to find is the sweet spot where your kid is challenged and not everything comes easy to them … but you don’t want the challenges to be so big or overwhelming.”

The effect that a child’s age has on their kindergarten experience can depend on their specific classroom situation.

Scientific research doesn’t give a black-or-white answer indicating which path is best for every kid. Studies show that older students often outperform their younger peers in the early years, but the older kids typically lose their advantage in the long run. In fact, some research shows that the younger students who have to strive to keep up with the older kids ultimately become more successful. 

Yet there can be good reasons to postpone enrollment, especially given the fact that kindergarten has shifted away from a focus on play and developing social skills towards more rigorous academics that some 5-year-olds might not be ready for. 

The effect that a child’s age has on their kindergarten experience can depend on their specific classroom situation, said Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and early-learning expert. 

“If kindergarten teachers adapted instruction and expectations to the skills and characteristics of their class, it shouldn’t matter what [the] children’s preparation is,” she said by email. However, if the teachers make tough demands regardless of what the children are ready for, that can create a disadvantage for kids who are “socially immature or children lacking in prerequisite academic skills.” 

So what’s a parent to do? 

“My advice to parents is to observe the kindergarten that their child would enter,” Stipek said, “and think about your child in that particular learning context.”


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