When should children start kindergarten? It is assumed that most kids are ready by the time they are eligible, at 4 1/2 or 5 years old. But increasingly parents are choosing to hold them back. Some parents think it’s advantageous for their kids to be among the oldest in the class – that’s called redshirting. Other parents are concerned that their child may not have developed the skills they will need to do well in kindergarten. As a parent, how can you know if it’s better to wait a year?

A lack of readiness

When considering whether a child is ready for kindergarten, Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says the focus is not on pre-academic skills, such as mastery of letters, numbers, colors and shapes.

Instead, Dr. Phillips says the more crucial piece in deciding about kindergarten has to do with children’s social-emotional and language development, as well as their self-regulation skills — their ability to pay attention and manage their emotions and behavior.

She looks at these factors:

  • Does the child have the ability to play cooperatively or even show interest in being with peers?
  • Are they able to share appropriately?
  • Do they show enthusiasm toward learning? For instance, are they eager to explore and discover? Are they comfortable asking questions? Are they okay with risk-taking? Do they have the capacity to persevere when things become difficult?
  • Are they able to communicate their needs to teachers or peers?
  • Can they sit and listen for an extended period of time? “Story time is a huge component of kindergarten,” Dr. Phillips say, “and a lot of kids have not been exposed to that type of structure.”
  • Do they have the desire to be independent? Do they have trouble separating from their parents?

The independence piece

Kindergarten teacher Donna Pollack Sacks considers independence the key. “It doesn’t matter if your child is academically ready,” she says. “If they aren’t ready to navigate a classroom, they should be held back.” She has more questions parents should ask themselves, including whether their child can follow simple directions and take care of bathroom needs.

“I can teach a child language and math skills along with how to hold a pencil and how to cut with scissors,” Pollack Sacks says. “But my job is infinitely more difficult when my students have no experience with being independent.”

Expectations have changed

Angie Cole Maranville, an elementary school special-education teacher for more than 18 years, notes that kindergarten expectations have changed greatly, challenging the readiness of some 5-year-olds.

In many places, she said, “kindergarten is now all day long and very academic. A lot of 5-year-olds are not developmentally ready to sit for extended periods.” She also often notices what she calls a huge difference in fine motor readiness. “Young 5-year-olds struggle to fit their letter and numbers into small boxes on worksheets. They get frustrated when this happens.”

One family’s experience

In some school districts, there are pre-kindergarten programs for kids deemed not quite ready for the full-on kindergarten experience. Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, offers a “Young 5s” experience for kids who turn 5 between May and December. With a smaller class size, it offers a gentler and more play-based introduction to elementary school.

One mom who chose the Young 5s program for her son says the decision was tough.  “I weighed both options,” she recalls. “Agonized over them is more accurate.”

Her son’s birthday was in late May. “I’d read research that said that kids who are the oldest in their class are more successful and confident,” she notes, “and research that said by the older grades kids who are the oldest in their class do worse because everything has always come easily to them so their work ethic isn’t as strong.”

In the end, she decided to consult with the young 5s teacher at their neighborhood school. “She met with my son for a few minutes, talked with him and had him do a few tasks and then recommended he do young 5s. So that’s what we did!”

Her son has had a successful school year, she reports, and they’re feeling good about his starting kindergarten in the fall.

Concerns about ADHD misdiagnosis

well-publicized study last year may also give parents pause about enrolling younger children in kindergarten. The study found that kids who are among the youngest in their class, especially boys, are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those who are among the oldest, which suggests that at least some of the children are being misdiagnosed simply because they are younger.

Dr. Phillips acknowledges the risks of confusing immaturity — including a shorter attention span, less ability to sit still, and more impulsivity —with symptoms of ADHD. She often encourages parents of boys who have late birthdays and who exhibit immaturity relative to their peers to hold them back, to give them that extra year to develop some of those skills.

But she also notes that if a child of kindergarten age seems to meet criteria for ADHD,  the first line of treatment would be therapy  to improve attention and behavioral regulation — not medication — and that should be beneficial whether the weakness is due to ADHD or immaturity. If it’s the latter, the child could be expected to catch up over time. If it’s the former, he is likely to need ongoing treatment. “Being older won’t eliminate a child’s ADHD. You need other interventions that are evidence-based to manage those symptoms.”

Should children with diagnoses be held back?

What about the idea of delaying kindergarten for kids with mental health and developmental issues including anxiety, autism and learning disorders? Dr. Phillips says this isn’t how to address them: “Age is not going to remediate the weaknesses associated with those disorders.” And with almost all mental health and learning disorders, the sooner children get support, the better the prognosis. “A child with anxiety is not going to outgrow her anxiety just because she started kindergarten a year later,” Dr. Phillips says. “We need to treat the anxiety.”

If there aren’t already supports in place, it’s the time to consider things like an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a Section 501 plan, paraprofessionals and possibly a specialized private school or a special-education placement within the public school system.

When it comes to learning disabilities, Dr. Phillips says that if a child has been exposed to pre-academic skills — such as learning colors, numbers and letters — and isn’t mastering them, that’s a warning sign that there might be some sort of underlying learning problem. “But that is not a reason to hold the child back,” she says. Instead, it’s cause to consider supports or an alternative school setting.

How do you know when to enroll your child?

The basic question of whether your child must attend kindergarten and when varies among the states and, in some cases, even districts. The Education Commission of the States breaks down kindergarten policies around the country, including the entrance age in various states.  The commission spells out what formal waivers are required to either hold a child out of kindergarten or get a younger child into kindergarten, also known as early entrance. Kristie Kauerz, director of the National P-3 Center and associate clinical professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, explains the factors that would influence a family’s options.

“There are there three key state policy variables,” she says. They are compulsory attendance laws, whether or not districts are required to offer kindergarten, and whether or not children are required to attend kindergarten.

Some require children to begin in first grade, others in kindergarten. She says if parents want to get a waiver to opt out of kindergarten, they have to go through an established process to demonstrate some reason why they elect to not comply with the law.

Nurture skills if opting out

When kindergarten is delayed for a year, Dr. Phillips emphasizes the importance of using that year to help children develop the skills they are lacking, whether at home or by enrolling them in a preschool or a play group.

“It really is important that you are working with them at home on communication skills and having them engaged in social activities,” she explains.  “They’re learning how to cooperate. And you’re reading to them. They’re learning how to listen attentively, and you’re helping to shape and reinforce those academic readiness skills that are really going to be crucial.”

And Kauerz notes a bigger picture: “I think another really important point is that these parent choices are great for families who have options — they can afford preschool, are able to stay home, etc. — but for children who come from low-income families or otherwise disadvantaged circumstances, these questions are moot.  Many families need kindergarten so that their children have supervision and structured learning opportunities. There are profound equity issues in all of this.”