An increasing number of parents seem to be considering “redshirting” their child—that is, delaying kindergarten for a year even though their child is technically old enough to attend kindergarten. Does research find that redshirting will provide an academic and or social advantage for children? The answer may be more complicated than you think.
Research on redshirting suggests that it is associated with a small academic advantage (that is, higher academic test scores) and test scores seem to increase at a greater rate in 1st and 2nd grade (suggesting that redshirted children are showing enhanced learning in these grades). However, this effect may begin to fade as early as the end of first grade. This is also correlational meaning we do not know whether it is redshirting that causes these advantages or if redshirting is simply associated with advantages. The latter would not be surprising since parents that choose to redshirt their children are often very different from the parents who do not— most notably they are often higher-income families.
Some research studies eliminate the problem of parent choice by looking at the impact of children’s age within the same grade. Research finds that students who are relatively older than other children in their grade score higher on math and science tests and, although these differences decrease over the years, they are still present to some extent in eighth grade. Other research finds that children who are relatively older show less hyperactivity and inattention and greater educational attainment (translation: getting farther in school). However, the impact on educational attainment is greatly reduced when schools do not engage in early tracking (translation: sending children to different schools based on academic abilities in elementary school). Research also shows that children who are older than their classmates are more likely to be in gifted education and less likely to be in special education. These positive impacts seem to extend to high school and beyond. Children who are older relative to their classmates are also less likely to drop out of high school, less likely to commit a felony, and less likely to experience a teenage pregnancy. Children that are older than their classmates are also more likely to attend a four-year college than younger students.
It is very important to note that this line of research only involves associations (meaning we do not know whether being older relative to your peers actually causes any of these positive or negative outcomes). Further research is needed in order to conclude that redshirting actually causes any of these positive outcomes.
When May Parents Want to Avoid Redshirting
If your child has an identified disability, a suspected disability, or even if you are just concerned that they may need some extra help in school, you may want to avoid redshirting. In this case, delaying school entry may be associated with worse academic performance, because it would also involve delaying free essential services through the public school system (such as speech therapy and learning support). This short delay may have a big impact as research finds that services before age 5 are more effective in improving a child’s long-term outcome than services after age 5.
Research has compared the impact of redshirting on children with disabilities (such as autism, developmental delays, learning disabilities, or health impairments) versus children without disabilities. Researchers found that children with disabilities who were redshirted scored significantly lower in math in third grade when compared to children with disabilities who were not redshirted, while children without disabilities who were redshirted showed improved math and reading scores in third grade. Research also finds a negative impact of redshirting for children with more severe ADHD and no impact for children with learning disabilities.
Is Redshirting More Important for Boys Than Girls?
In any discussion of redshirting, it is commonly assumed that boys in particular benefit from redshirting. In line with this assumption, research reveals that boys are indeed more likely to be redshirted than girls.
While research does find that girls are more likely to be ready for kindergarten than boys and that this difference is mostly driven by differences in social-emotional development. Research also suggests that boys seem to show greater gains from redshirting and that boys may not cope as well as girls with having higher-achieving classmates.
Is Redshirting Fair?
The choice to redshirt or not is a privilege. For most families, delaying kindergarten means paying for full-time child care or delaying a stay-at-home parent from re-entering the workforce for an additional year. This is simply not an option for most families. Redshirting as a practice may also increase the ever-widening gap between students from high-income and low-income families, as only high-income families may be able to afford this option when wanting to give their child an advantage. Yet there is also research showing that having older classmates may improve the performance of younger classmates, suggesting that the practice of redshirting is at least not harmful to students who do not make this choice.
Delaying kindergarten for a year may be associated with a small advantage to children. It is unclear the extent to which this advantage is temporary or has a lasting impact. However, if you suspect your child has a disability, you may want to avoid redshirting and start school as soon as possible to get them the services that they need. Parents may want to avoid holding their children back or repeating a grade since the negative impacts may outweigh the positive in this case.
Parents may also want to consider the school environment. Is the school more academic or play-based? Do they require children to sit for longer periods of time or are there movement breaks? Does the school compare children to others and/or use a tracking system for gifted education?
Most importantly, parents should consider their individual child in this decision. Whatever choice they make, they should feel confident in doing what feels right for their child and family.
Fortner, C. K., & Jenkins, J. M. (2017). Kindergarten redshirting: Motivations and spillovers using census-level data. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 38, 44-56.
Black, S. E., Devereux, P. J., & Salvanes, K. G. (2011). Too young to leave the nest? The effects of school starting age. The review of economics and statistics, 93(2), 455-467.
Greenburg, J. E., & Winsler, A. (2021). Early school outcomes for children who delay kindergarten entry. In Supporting Children’s Well-Being During Early Childhood Transition to School (pp. 275-302). IGI Global.
Dee, T. S., & Sievertsen, H. H. (2018). The gift of time? School starting age and mental health. Health economics, 27(5), 781-802.
Fredriksson, P., & Öckert, B. (2014). Life‐cycle effects of age at school start. The Economic Journal, 124(579), 977-1004.
Barnard-Brak, L., Stevens, T., & Albright, E. (2017). Academic red-shirting and academic achievement among students with ADHD. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 50, 4-12.
Cook, P. J., & Kang, S. (2016). Birthdays, schooling, and crime: Regression-discontinuity analysis of school performance, delinquency, dropout, and crime initiation. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 8(1), 33-57.
Kniffin, K. M., & Hanks, A. S. (2016). Revisiting Gladwell's hockey players: Influence of relative age effects upon earning the PhD. Contemporary Economic Policy, 34(1), 21-36.
Barnard-Brak, L. (2009). Academic Red-Shirting among Children with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 7(1), 43-54.
Campbell, F. A., & Ramey, C. T. (1994). Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: a follow‐up study of children from low‐income families. Child development, 65(2), 684-698.