David would be five in July. Though he loved going to preschool, he was anxiously awaiting kindergarten next fall. David knew his friends would be moving on to the inviting classroom in the big school where his brother and sister spent their days.
Full of enthusiasm, he confidently underwent spring kindergarten screening where he spent half an hour naming pictures, drawing a "man," bouncing a ball, and copying designs. The school psychologist reported that David demonstrated average and above average skills. But, she frowned, he did have a summer birthday and, of course, he is male. It would be better, she believed, for David to postpone kindergarten entrance for a year so that he would not be one of the youngest children in the class. He would do better academically. The gym teacher agreed, citing the advantages of an extra year to develop physical skills so necessary for sports.
Mom and Dad were shocked. The preschool teacher insisted that David was ready. Grandma reminded everyone that he was already tall for his age. And David was crushed. Relying on the school’s expert advice, Mom and Dad registered David for a third year of preschool and enrolled him in kindergarten the following year at the age of six.
David’s experience has been repeated over and over by many children across the country. Educators are commonly recommending that children born during the summer months be given an extra year to mature so that they will not suffer from the academic disadvantages of being one of the youngest children in their class (Uphoff, Gilmore, & Huber, 1986; Uphoff & Gilmore, 1986). Terms such as academic redshirting and graying of the kindergarten have been invented to describe the practice and effects of holding children back from kindergarten (Bracey, 1989; Suro, 1992).
Whenever educators make recommendations about children, parents have the right to expect that those recommendations are firmly grounded in a sound knowledge base. Therefore, it becomes the educator’s ethical and professional duty to examine the evidence before advocating a course of action.
What Does the Research Indicate?
A review of the relevant literature reveals that few studies have been undertaken to examine whether or not children with summer birthdays do better academically when they postpone kindergarten entrance one year. Problems also exist because some of the research often cited in support of holding out has been poorly designed; has focused on learning disabled children or early entrants; or has looked at children who were not born specifically during the summer months (Crosser, 1991).
This lack of relevant evidence prompted an investigation comparing the academic achievement of two groups of children born in June, July, August, or September: those who entered kindergarten just after turning five and those who were held out one year and entered kindergarten at age six (Crosser, 1991). Each child who was held out was matched with a child of like intelligence who had not been held out. Boys were matched with boys and girls with girls. None of the children had been retained in any grade. Children were drawn from seven Ohio public school districts.
All of the children took standardized achievement tests during fifth or sixth grade. Those scores were used to compare the achievement of summer-born, held-out children to those of summer children who had entered school on time.
None of the previous studies had compared summer-born children who were matched for intelligence. That would seem to be an important consideration when looking at achievement differences because differences could be due to intelligence rather than entrance age.
Results of the study indicated that summer-born children who were held out one year achieved higher composite scores on achievement tests than did summer-born children who entered kindergarten on time at age five. When subtests in reading were compared, scores of held-out males were significantly higher than scores of males who had not been held out. Reading scores for females and math scores for both males and females showed no significant statistical differences.
Is Evidence Adequate to Support Holding Out?
A responsible physician would not recommend any treatment that had not been scientifically tested and retested for effectiveness. She would need to know the specific symptoms for which the treatment was effective. She would need to know the success rate of the treatment and what complicating side effects and interactions were possible before prescribing the treatment.
Responsible educators also have a need to know before recommending treatment. There is a pressing need to know before applying treatment to a child whose only symptoms are being born in July and being male.
One or two small studies will not convince the FDA to approve a new drug. Neither should one or two small studies convince an educator to recommend holding out summer-born children as a prescription for academic success. At this time there is simply not adequate evidence to support recommending that summer-born children wait a year before entering kindergarten in order to benefit from some "academic advantage."
Nevertheless, the reality is that both teachers and parents are buying into the idea that delaying school entrance for summer birth date children is sound practice (Elkind, 1987; Suro, 1992).
How Does Holding Out Affect the Kindergarten Experience?
It has been reported that children of affluent parents tend to hold out their summer-born children more often than low socioeconomic status parents (Bracey, 1989; Suro, 1992). If that is the case, then children who may be at academic risk due to factors associated with poverty face the additional hurdle of being compared to advantaged children who are 12 to 15 months older. We should expect that the economically disadvantaged children should be outperformed by their classmates who are both chronologically and developmentally their seniors.
However, in the real-life kindergarten classroom, the youngest children may appear to be immature and unready to tackle the tasks their significantly older classmates find challenging and intriguing. As the curriculum and academic expectations increase to meet the needs of the six-year-old children, there is a real danger that the kindergarten program will become developmentally inappropriate for the very young children it is meant to serve.
Did David’s Parents Make the Right Decision?
David is 15 now. When he was 13 he towered above his classmates as he walked through the halls. The school desks just didn’t fit his 6’ 3" body and many of his teachers assumed that he must have been retained since he was older than the other students. When asked what grade he is in, David always makes it a point to explain that he started kindergarten late.
But David is well liked by students and teachers. He moved into both puberty and formal operational thought sooner than his classmates and they admire him for that. Academically, David does average and above average work with minimal effort.
Did David’s parents make the right decision in holding him out from kindergarten? They don't know. They will probably never know, but David thinks he knows the answer.
Academic achievement is only one piece of the school entrance age puzzle. The child’s physical, social, and emotional development are key pieces, as well. It would seem to be the course of wisdom to consider the whole child in all of his or her aspects when making decisions about school entrance age. The answers are not simple. They are further complicated by the fact that each child is different biologically and emotionally. Each child brings his or her special characteristics with him or her as he or she lives and works through his or her unique life experiences.
Recommendations of educators can be life-changing events in a young child’s life. Blanket recommendation to hold back one group of children only serves to change who will be part of the youngest group. As educators we must resist the urge to follow the unfounded advice of those who would recommend uniform practices that would exclude any group of children from our schools. Educators must consider the individual child as we continue to build a stronger foundation base upon which to make decisions.
Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.
Bracey, G.W. (1989). Age and achievement. Phi Delta Kappan, 70, 732.
Crosser, S. (1991). Summer birth date children: kindergarten entrance age and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 84 (3), 140-146.
Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Suro, R. (1992). Holding back to get ahead. The New York Times. January 5.
Uphoff, J.K. & Gilmore, J. (1986). Pupil age at school entrance—How many are ready for success? Young Children, 41, 11-16.
Uphoff, J.K., Gilmore, J.E., & Huber, R. (1986). Summer children ready or not for school. Middletown, OH: J&J Publishing.