Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Redshirting: A "Moving" Experience

By Sheldon H. Horowitz

Until recently, redshirting has been a term associated almost exclusively with college sports. A student athlete who is redshirted is kept out of varsity competition for a year--sometimes due to legitimate medical concerns (such as an injury that needs more time to heal), sometimes for academic reasons (such as the need to improve academic standing or fulfill other college enrollment requirements), and sometimes simply to extend eligibility to play college sports.

Holding certain student athletes back from competitive team play is also seen as a way to give them more time to mature and improve their skills. Today, academic redshirting also refers to holding back kindergarten-eligible children for one year, the assumption being that they would benefit from additional time for intellectual, emotional or even physical growth. This "give them another year to develop or (as is often said of young children who struggle with learning) catch up" mindset merits serious attention.

How often is this an issue for concern? The National Center for Education Statistics and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study report that between 6% and 9% of age-eligible kindergartners are held back from entering school on time. What are the reasons for delaying school entry? Does research support this practice? What are the outcomes for children who are redshirted for delayed entry into kindergarten?

Are You Ready?

The question about whether a child should begin kindergarten when he or she reaches the prescribed age for entering school has "readiness" written all over it. And as we all know, "ready" is not something we can easily measure. What variables should we consider when we think about readiness for a first sleep-over, summer camp, traveling by train or plane without an adult, riding a bicycle without training wheels, swimming in deep water without a life vest, owning a pocket knife, shopping unaccompanied at the mall, or getting a part-time job?

The answers aren't so simple, because child development is a moving target. Issues of language skill, physical strength, assertiveness and social maturity, self-confidence, flexibility of thinking and resourcefulness, and the ability to assess and juggle decision-making under pressure from adults and peers are all variables that speak to whether a person will be successful on the playground, in school, or in the workplace.

These characteristics are not easily gleaned from a brief interview, checklists, or formal testing. And they often do not emerge in predictable patterns or develop evenly with age. Although it's tempting to assume another year of life experience or practice will improve a child's chances of success in school, the research suggests this is not always the case.

The Research on Redshirting

A Professional Development for Early Childhood Professionals and Families program at the University of Kansas publishes a great review of the research on redshirting in a question-and-answer format. This worksheet is adapted and expanded here:

The research says...we need more research! Some studies report that, in the short run, redshirting can boost a child's confidence; improve academic learning in math, reading, and general knowledge; increase success with social interactions; and perhaps even boost popularity among peers. But the long-term benefits of redshirting are not at all clear. In fact, it seems as though by third grade, there is no discernable difference between those children who had a late school start and those who did not. Other interesting facts:
  • Young boys are more frequently redshirted than girls of the same age.

  • Children born in the latter half of the year are more likely to be held back.

  • White (non-Hispanic) children are more than twice as likely to enter kindergarten a year later than their age-matched black (non-Hispanic) peers.
Grade retention in the early years is not a guarantee for school success. When compared with their nonretained peers, children who were retained before kindergarten were 66% more likely to receive negative feedback from teachers during their later school years. Studies have suggested that when these student reach adolescence, they may experience some behavioral difficulties, perhaps stemming from being a year or more older than their peers. In fact, students who are more than a year older than their classmates are more likely to drop out of high school.

Family income has something to do with redshirting...but not much. A slightly higher incidence of redshirting young children exists among affluent families, but indications are that income is not the important factor. Greater parental involvement is much more strongly connected to student achievement than is family income, although in some communities these family characteristics tend to go hand in hand.

Redshirting makes teaching more difficult for educators in the early grades. Young children of the same age vary considerably in terms of their overall development. By adding another year to this age range within the classroom, the learning and behavioral challenges are going to be that much greater.

Redshirting can affect children who have not been kept back a year. Some young children with summer birthdays have a difficult time adjusting to school, and some do not. Some children come to school ready to read, or with good counting skills, some do not. Widening the gap of cans and cannots in this pool of youngsters can create unwelcome competition and pressure within the classroom and intensify the range of emotions that ordinarily help to make the kindergarten classroom such a special, welcoming experience.

Redshirting has feelings too! Ask any child who has had to repeat a grade how he or she feels about having been left back, and you'll quickly realize how serious a decision this is. Research suggests that although the positive benefits of starting school late seem to fade during the subsequent two or three years, the emotional baggage of having been retained lingers on. An early study asked young students to rate a series of stressful events--being left back ranked third, immediately following "going blind" and "losing a parent." Point made!

The LD Connection

Earlier is better when it comes to recognizing and responding to signs of learning disabilities (LDs). During the school years, parents and educators should be on the alert for consistent--and persistent--patterns of difficulty that children and adolescents may experience over time, as they may signal an underlying LD. Although variations in the course of development are to be expected, unevenness or lags in the mastery of skills and behaviors, even with children as young as 4 or 5, should not be ignored.

And because LD can co-occur with other disorders, it's important to keep careful and complete records of observations and impressions so they can be shared among parents, educators, and related service providers when making important decisions about needed services and supports.

LD describes an assortment of disorders that affect listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, math, and social skills. And remember: LDs do not go away. An LD is not something that can be outgrown or cured by medication, therapy, or expert tutoring. So, early recognition of warning signs, well-targeted screening and assessment, effective intervention, and ongoing monitoring of progress are critical to helping individuals with LD succeed in school, in the workplace, and in life.

NCLD's Learning Disabilities Checklist is a helpful guide to recognizing signs of LD (but not as a tool to pinpoint specific LDs). The more characteristics you check, the more likely the individual described is at risk for or shows signs of LDs. When completing this form, think about the person's behavior over at least the past six months in such domains as gross and fine motor skills, reading, spoken and written language, math, social and emotional issues, and attention. When you're done, don't wait to seek assistance from school personnel or other professionals.

If You Are Thinking About Delayed Entrance to Kindergarten

Here are some suggestions for parents and educators to consider when discussing the benefits of redshirting for individual children:
  • Be clear about the specific characteristics of the child for whom you have concerns and the reasons why you think he or she might benefit from another pre-K experience. Being the youngest in the grade or not knowing how to tie shoes are not good reasons to delay kindergarten entry. Be sure to include parents, preschool providers, and kindergarten teachers in this conversation.

  • Consider the physical and instructional flow of the kindergarten classroom, and make sure opportunities exist for mixed-age classes of children to progress at their own pace.

  • A well-designed curriculum that is both age and developmentally appropriate for each child can make an enormous difference for students who are at either end of the developmental continuum. Think and plan ahead about the types of adjustment that will enable timid, reluctant, average, and more advanced learners to succeed.

  • All-day kindergarten is recommended for most children and can be especially helpful to even out the disparity in readiness that is typical of many kindergarteners.

  • Some children will require individualized attention and additional support. Decide what help is needed, both inside and outside the school setting, and make attention to these concerns a priority. Earlier is better when it comes to recognizing and responding to children's early struggles with learning.

  • Use screening and evaluation data appropriately. Using the outcome of these studies to design and adapt a curriculum that meets the needs of all young learners is much better than using these data to make placement decisions or assumptions about the progress of individual students before they've acclimated to kindergarten.

  • Smaller is better when it comes to class size. Fewer students in a class means more individualized attention for all students and more opportunities for children who are shy, who are behind in motor skills and physical coordination, and who have special challenges because of life circumstance or language issues.
Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, New York. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professionals, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail © 2006 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Recommended Readings and Resources

This article was adapted from Research Roundup," LD News, August 2006. Visit this website for more information about this topic and for a list of Internet resources, tips for families and educators, and more.

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