How Old Should a Kindergartener Be?

To send or not to send? The question of at what age a child is most ready for kindergarten is as controversial in some playground circles as bottle feeding a newborn, or screen time before age two. The downward push of academic expectations, dubbing kindergarten the “new first grade,” has intensified the debate. 

A new study from a team led by a Yale sociologist found that children whose birthdays fall shortly after the state’s cutoff date for starting kindergarten — and who are therefore among the oldest in their classes — tend to perform better academically than their younger classmates. Additionally, for those students with younger siblings, the study found, their success in turn has a positive influence on those siblings once they reach middle school — particularly among children from disadvantaged families. This research backs the idea that being an older, and likely a more developmentally mature, member of a class is a plus; and that this benefit can trickle down to younger siblings as well later in their academic careers.

Belief in the advantage of later kindergarten enrollment has been popular long before research supported the claim. While most states mandate a child be in some form of kindergarten during the year of their fifth birthday, this is not the practice for all families. As kindergarten has become the new first grade, families with the resources have been increasingly opting to put off kindergarten for a year; the Covid years contributed to this trend. For other families, however, the cost of an additional year of preschool is prohibitive. This means the decision about the age at which to send a child to kindergarten is often a privilege rather than a choice.

Delaying kindergarten enrollment is known as “redshirting” — a term derived from collegiate athletes who refrain from competition their first season in order to enable four more years of legal play. The anticipated result of redshirting in kindergarten is a child who is one of the older and more developmentally, socially, and emotionally mature of their cohort — not only for kindergarten, but the entirety of their school career.  In a 2021 survey conducted by Morning Consult and Ed Choice, twelve percent of parents with school-age children report having redshirted a child. Interestingly, that rate was even higher at fifteen percent among teachers with school-age children. 

In short, research (summarized here) on the age at which children are most ready for kindergarten is complicated, and should be noted primarily correlational. When considering what is best for a child, we at Gesell have always recommended placing less weight on a child’s chronological age, encouraging more emphasis on finding a just-right fit between a child’s developmental stage and the expectations of the classroom for which they are being considered. This shifts the question from “Is my child ready for kindergarten?” to “Is this particular kindergarten ready for my child?” As schools began to place greater demands on students at earlier ages, the adage “give children the gift of time” evolved. In short, this suggests that if a kindergarten expects the skills of a five-and-a-half- or six-year-old, then another year of preschool, if available, might give some children the time to reach that more mature developmental stage. This will ensure a better fit for increased kindergarten standards.

It is possible that a child with a birthday just before their state’s kindergarten cutoff date, or who is not quite developmentally ready for the rigors of their kindergarten classroom, may benefit from additional time in preschool. But until all families are ensured universal access to free, high-quality preschool, schools must be better prepared for all children eligible for their kindergartens. This means committing to developmentally appropriate and play-based learning environments where even the youngest of the class will thrive.


Photo by woodleywonderworks

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