When to Start School: That is the Question
January 8, 2013
By Sarah Vander Schaaff
Several weeks ago, well before Sandy and the holidays took over our thoughts and conversations here in New Jersey, I attended an evening lecture given by Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University and co-author of the 2011 book, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College.
The room was full of parents, whose children, one imagined, spanned the time frame mentioned in the title of his book.
Wang told us, as both a professor and father of a five-year-old, “For nearly everything, don’t worry.” Young kids not sleeping through the night, not talking properly, these issues usually resolve, he said.
The brain is a three-pound organ and runs on 15 watts. We are all, he joked, like the “dim light of a refrigerator.”
But it was when he discussed his New York Times op-ed, “Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril” (September 24, 2011) co-written with Sandra Aamodt, that there did seem to be a tinge of worry in the audience.
Wang assured us that someone else came up with the dramatic headline and he was not there to scare anyone—much the opposite—but he stood by his assertion that the trend to “redshirt” or delay entry to kindergarten was not a good one for most children.
For me, this crystalized one dilemma we face as parents today: how do we make decisions about our kids and their education? Do we seek information from our friends and allow the trends of the times sway us? Or do we find expert opinions and sometimes challenge the way things are done?
It’s not enough to say we can simply step back and let the school do what it’s designed to do because, at the very least, a parent is aware that things have changed.
Take, for example, this one issue of redshirting. Wang and his co-author point out that this is a big shift. As of 2011, when the piece appeared, 1 in 11 children would be held back. The cut-off birthdate for starting kindergarten, a de facto form of redshirting, is earlier than it was when we were kids—by more than a month in some cases, they write.
The movement to delay entry, especially for boys, is so commonplace, that some of my friends have felt a need to explain why they are not holding their boys back.
So, how do you make your decision? Wang and Aamodt’s argument is compelling and it’s worth reading the full op-ed, (and the book’s website, which has links to more articles, can be found here.)They speak to both academic and social concerns. Wang’s unique field of study allows him to explain what we parents of four-year-olds clearly know from experience and to exhaustion: our children’s brains are using more energy than they ever will again in their lives. “Brain development cannot be put on pause, so the critical question is how to provide the best possible context to support it,” he and Aamodt write.
They assert that, “Learning is maximized not by getting all the answers right, but by making errors and correcting them quickly. In this respect, children benefit from being close to the limits of their ability.”
While I am framing the issue of delaying kindergarten in the context of individual parental choice, Wang and Aamodt suggest it has significant consequences as a policy: “For low-income children,” they write, “every month of additional schooling closes one-tenth of the gap between them and more advantaged students.”
I turned to the folks here at MindprintPLUS for their views on this topic. Wendy Mathews is a child psychologist in Princeton and agrees with Wang and Aamodt. She explains how many older children who have been held back feel:
“As a practicing child psychologist, I have had the opportunity to hear the child’s perspective on this issue. Despite their concerned parents’ good intentions, many is the child who harbors resentment about their parents’ decision, sometimes well into their high school years. In elementary and middle school, they see their same-age peers enjoying challenges on the playing fields that their own grade status prohibits them from participating in. In high school, they see their peers going off to college at eighteen, while they are still sitting in the high school classroom and living at home with their parents. They often chafe at the delay in independence and autonomy in their later school years. I agree with Wang and Aamodt that, for some children, the “gift of year” could be critically important and save them from years of feeling dishearteningly behind their peers in academic achievement.”
Dr. Matthews added that a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation can often give parents more information.
Another member of the team, who is both an educator and mother, has a different perspective.
“As a parent of two teenage sons who were held back from starting kindergarten, I have seen no lasting negative consequences to our decision to delay their formal education. Our first-born is dyslexic and even though we committed to early intervention and tutoring with him, putting him in kindergarten with his peers would have set him up for failure. And what parent wants their child’s first memories of school to be riddled with anxiety, fear and damaged self-esteem? Giving our son one more year to build his elementary skills was a significant one in his overall education. I am proud to say that he now attends one of the most competitive prep schools in the area and is experiencing success.
Our other son does not face the same academic challenges and yet we decided to hold him back as well. Again we have seen no lasting negative results of this decision. He is also doing well in the same high school as his brother.”
“As an educator I have seen students who were pushed to start kindergarten early or on schedule who would have benefited from an extra year. Considerations beyond academic readiness need to be reflected on as well. Social and emotional maturity play an important role in a student’s education. If a student is not on par with his or her peers because they are young they can suffer dire consequences. When students get into middle school and beyond they need to be able to manage social and academic pressures on their own. If they have not been given the time to mature and develop they will struggle.”
Did you make a choice to send your child to kindergarten recently? Or to hold him or her back a year? We’d like to hear from you.