To start kindergarten in Washington, a child must turn 5 by midnight on August 31st of that year. That means a kindergarten classroom will have younger kids who were born in July and August, older students born in September and October, and all the kids in between.
Over recent decades, however, parents across the country have increasingly taken the decision of when to start kindergarten into their own hands, either holding kids back so they can have another year to mature socially and academically, or testing precocious kids for early entrance to spare them the boredom of one more year at home or in preschool.
It’s a big question: What is the right age to send a child to kindergarten?
“It’s the question I get most,” says Professor Kristen Missall, School of Psychology program director at the University of Washington College of Education. “It’s fascinating how that question just holds – it’s held for 25 years. Parents and caregivers are aware that once the train starts, it’s really difficult to stop it and every caregiver wants to give their kid the best possible start.”
Frustratingly, there is no exact “right age.” As in so many things, Missal said, it depends on the child.
The age of red-shirting
In the early 1990s, 9% of American children were “redshirted,” meaning that they started kindergarten at age 6. Two decades later, in 2013, that number more than doubled to 20.5, according to U.S. Census data. The shift toward older students was so pronounced that education experts dubbed it the “graying of kindergarten.”
That tide seems to ebb and flow. In a 2021 survey conducted by Morning Consult and Ed Choice, 12 percent of 2,200 parents with school-age children who were surveyed reported having held their child back from kindergarten until age 6. Thirty percent of those parents said their child was not emotionally ready at age 5, 22% felt their child was not academically prepared, and 18% said their child was not socially ready to go to school. Another 17% held their child so that they would be one of the older students in class. In 2017, The Seattle Times reported that only 6% of kids who started kindergarten were age 6 that year. The Seattle Public Schools (SPS) would not confirm the current number. Of “redshirting,” a district spokesperson said: “The district does not recognize this terminology.”
“There are valid reasons why parents delay their child to start kindergarten after 5 years of age, or withdraw them from kindergarten due to a school-readiness concern and re-enroll in kindergarten for the following year, which is at their discretion,” Tina Riss Christiansen, SPS communications specialist said.
Is there a good reason to wait?
Some parents who have kept their 5-year-olds out of school say they believe their kids will perform better in school or sports, and be positioned 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 fell 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 when Ewen began kindergarten at age 6, Kildall said the whole family was happy with their decision. In retrospect, she thinks her son also would have been fine if he’d started sooner.
When a child really is ready early
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. “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.
“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.”
Missal is a believer in the official age cutoff: “Almost always if they hit that age cutoff [of turning 5 by August 31], parents should send their child. It’s really that simple.”
Skills that help a child succeed
When the question of whether a 4-year-old should be enrolled in kindergarten comes up, she spells out how teachers consistently define readiness in research. When asked, teacher respondents say a child who is ready for kindergarten should be able to:
- sit still
- work independently
- stand in line
- follow directions
- complete tasks.
“There’s just those kinds of basic behavior management skills that help kids to access the curriculum, and help them to access instruction,” Missal reports. “Those are really important to educators.”
When Missall gets the ‘Is my kid ready?’ question, she asks a question back.
“I ask parents their thoughts about their child’s learning-related social skills or their capacity to learn them quickly, in the first two to four weeks of class,” Missall said. “But, before I encourage a family to consider early enrollment, I encourage them to think about what other kinds of enrichment activities could be provided in daily life for kids.” She also encourages parents to think 10 years forward and consider any risks a younger child – or for that matter an older child – might be exposed to during the emotionally and sexually charged years of high school.
Missall points out that kids like Edie are the exception, not the rule.
“It’s a rare situation where it’s the right decision to send a 4-year-old to kindergarten – for them, for their family or from the school community context. It’s just not a common occurrence – not nearly as common as folks who ask the question about whether their child should go early.”
It’s not black and white
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 toward more rigorous academics that some 5-year-olds might not be ready for – especially those who have not attended preschool.
Can’t decide? Follow the cutoff
Missall, who is a proponent of universal preschool, notes that preschool is not the be-all-end-all of kindergarten prep.
“I encourage parents to think really critically about the daily lives of their kids – do they have opportunities to follow directions and engage with peers? Maybe they’re taking community swimming lessons, maybe they’re part of a religious group with same-age peers, maybe they engage in other learning opportunities like circle times at the library,” she said. “ If kids are getting opportunities to interact with same-age peers, if they’re understanding what it means to sit in small or large group settings with someone delivering instructions, then they’re learning how to manage their words and their bodies in those spaces whether they go to preschool or not. That helps to prepare them for kindergarten. Of course, it’s helpful if they also have exposure to some books, and numbers – that helps a child participate actively in the curriculum that the kindergarten teacher is delivering. The more of those skills that the kid brings in primes them to be able to engage more fully in what’s happening in the classroom.”
The effect that a child’s age has on their kindergarten experience can depend on their specific classroom situation, says Deborah Stipek, 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. 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?
Missall urges parents who are interested in either early kindergarten admission or waiting a year talk to experts at the school their child would attend.
“Families can access teams of specialists, nurses, school psychologists, educators who have specialties around physical therapy and special learning strategies,” she said. “I think it takes a village to really bring multiple perspectives together and try to make a decision about what’s really going to meet the needs of a child.”
Stiptek added that a little class auditing can also go a long way,
“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.”
Home-based preliteracy skill-building
She also encourages parents to help prepare their kids academically by practicing preliteracy skills like reading, doing puzzles, and practicing conversation.
Seattle-based Kaiser Permanente pediatriction Dr. Susanna Block offers these other ways to pratice preliteracy:
- Limit screen time
- Read to your child daily
- Keep it fun and age-appropriate
- Follow your child’s interests
- Use dinner time or car time to encourage conversation
- Talk to your child about what you’re doing: making dinner, cleaning up, running errands. This turns everyday activities into informal opportunities to build language skills.
Sometimes you just have to try it — and not rule out a re-do
Missall notes that sometimes you just need to do a thing to find out if it’s the right choice. She pointed out that parents who enroll their children in kindergarten at age 5 can always change their minds. Pulling kids out of kindergarten, having them attend a half-day K one year and then a full-K the next are all reasonable options. Seattle Public Schools only offer full-day kindergarten. But other districts in the region, for example Lake Washington and Bellevue, offer the half-day option at parent request according to their websites. Unfortunately, the cost of sending a child to private half-day kindergarten in districts that don’t offer it is prohibitive for most families at thousands of dollars a year.
“It’s about really thinking critically about what that child’s daily experience is like in the kindergarten classroom. If the child’s miserable, if they just can’t find the rhythm, if they are not willing to engage, if they come home every day and they’re just a weeping mass, then that’s not helping anybody.” It’s way better emotionally and socially for a child to repeat kindergarten than to repeat higher grades, Missall added.
*Seattle’s Child editor Cheryl Murfin contributed to this article.
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