Kindergarten Redshirting

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Redshirting is not just for hulking Buckeye linebackers anymore. Nowadays, if you overhear a mom talking to another mom about redshirting, chances are she's talking about a little boy with a summer birthday.

That's what Julie Yoakum was doing seven years ago. She and husband Lee's twin sons, Ben and Will, were born on July 7. If the boys enrolled at St. Mary School in Delaware as 5-year-olds, they would have been among the youngest in their class. If they waited another year, they would be among the oldest. The family chose to wait.

"Believe me, I would have loved to get them in sooner," Julie Yoakum said. "But I could tell that Will just wasn't ready. Ben was, but I wasn't going to separate them."

It's a dilemma that plenty of Central Ohio families face each year with their summer-born children. Since 2001, Ohio law has allowed districts and private or parochial schools to choose either Aug. 1 or Sept. 30 as the cut-off birth date for kindergarten entrance. By age 6, a child must be enrolled in at least kindergarten.

The percentage of children who have waited a year to start kindergarten is on the rise nationally. Some studies peg it as high as 20 percent of the population starting kindergarten each year, while others say it's more like 9 percent to 11 percent.

Research also shows that it's usually boys getting held back and it happens most often in communities where families can more easily afford another year of preschool or have one parent at home all day.

Educators have different opinions about whether being younger or older in a class is better for kids.

"Given all we know about brain research, the earlier we get to them, the more primed they are to learn," said Lisa Usselman, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education's Office of Early Learning and School Readiness.

"And redshirting kind of looks like retention," Usselman said. "There can be self-esteem implications, and the potential to drop out increases because it's hard to keep (an older child) in school."

Bernice Smith, supervisor of Columbus City School's Department of Early Childhood Education, also believes that enrollment when a child is younger than most classmates can be positive for the child.

"You have to ask yourself what is the reason you want to hold a child back," Smith said. "If it's because they have trouble tying their shoes, they don't know all the letters of the alphabet or all their colors, well, that's not necessarily a good reason because those things can be taught."

But Kelly Hicks, principal of Jonathan Alder Elementary School in Plain City, said that after 25 years of teaching, she's inclined to support parents who want to hold a child back.

"Especially with boys," Hicks said. "Girls mature faster and they like to 'play the school game.' If a parent is doubting with a young boy, then I would say don't (enroll them)."

Even when a child is intellectually gifted, Hicks said there can be compelling reasons to wait: "Just because you're gifted doesn't make you less apt to cry at the drop of a hat. There are social issues that have to be considered, too."

Yoakum said that with her boys, it was a combination of her own instincts plus the preschool teachers' input that led to the decision to hold back.

"Will just wasn't achieving the pre-reading skills," Yoakum said. She even took advantage of Delaware County's developmental abilities testing program to have her son's hearing, vision, cognitive and motor skills tested.

"He was totally in the normal range, but he just wasn't ready, I could tell," Yoakum said.

And relying on her own instincts is ultimately what all the educators say parents have to give themselves permission to do.

"They might be getting some pressure from the school (to hold back) or from other parents," Usselman said. "And you sometimes see people holding back for sports reasons, although these days, it's usually more for academic considerations."

Smith said her antennae go up whenever she hears parents use the phrase "someone said" when describing their decisions.

"I say to them, 'That's your decision, but you have to know that we teach all children and we take them where they are,' " Smith said. "And I also say that parents know their child best."

Today, Will and Ben Yoakum are happy and healthy soon-to-be sixth graders at St. Mary's, doing well in school and keeping busy trying a wide variety of sports and extracurricular activities. And their mother doesn't second-guess the family's decision.

"It just depends on the kid," she said, "and a mother's intuition."