Deciding when to start kindergarten

The transition into kindergarten has always been a big one for kids. And as this first year of elementary school has become increasingly academic, some parents wonder whether it’s best to enroll children as soon as they’re eligible, or wait an additional year until they’re more mature.

Considerations may feel especially fraught now, as fewer kids attended preschool during the pandemic.

Experts say that delaying kindergarten — a practice known as “redshirting” — may benefit kids in certain circumstances, but caution that there are also disadvantages to waiting.

When Are Kids Required to Start School?

In most states, children must be 5 years old by August or September to enter kindergarten that academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But the age when kids are legally required to start school is often older, and state laws and school districts’ policies can vary greatly. Sometimes the enrollment cutoff date falls after the school year has started, so children as young as 4 are eligible for kindergarten. Some states don’t require kindergarten, and some districts, such as New York City’s, don’t allow redshirting. In practice, these disparate policies mean that caregivers are frequently given a lot of latitude around the decision.

Why Some Families Choose to Delay Kindergarten

For most families, redshirting is not an option.

“When you look across the country at children who are age-appropriate for kindergarten, the large majority are in fact going,” says Mary Kay Irwin, director of school health services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. A 2013 NCES report showed that 87% of kindergartners nationally enrolled on time in the 2010-2011 academic year, and only 6% had been redshirted (another 6% repeated kindergarten for a second year). That could be because for most working parents, delaying kindergarten means another year of paying for child care. The report found that more affluent households — those with incomes over 200% of the federal poverty line — were the most likely to redshirt.

[READ: Getting Ready for Kindergarten.]

Irwin notes there are cases in which delaying kindergarten might be a good idea. These include for children with developmental delays (though access to early intervention services, which are available in public schools, should be a consideration for these families); and for children who have experienced trauma.

She says some children with birthdays close to the cutoff date may be helped by another year of early learning and time to mature, but encourages families to talk to their pediatrician about their concerns first.

For some parents, the decision is more about the long-term. Scott Odachowski, the father of a 4-year-old with a summer birthday in Broadview Heights, Ohio, decided to wait an extra year before enrolling his daughter in kindergarten. Though Odachowski says his daughter’s pre-K teachers report she is academically and socially prepared, he is concerned about how her age might affect her future experiences. He says milestones like driving and puberty that he and his wife “didn’t want her to be last on,” were a factor in their choice.

Being young compared to other students in the grade has been associated with higher rates of certain diagnoses. A 2018 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed students who were young for their grade were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. And research published by the education news site Chalkbeat in 2020 found New York City students born in the last two months of the year were more likely to be identified as having a learning disability than their older peers.

Preschool teachers often talk about a less tangible benefit of waiting: extending the experience of early childhood. Odachowski says teachers at his daughter’s pre-K program called it “gifting your child another year.”

Drawbacks of Delaying Kindergarten

While there is often an initial academic advantage for students who enroll later, Irwin says this sometimes evens out as students progress in their schooling. (Some research shows the advantage may dissipate as early as first grade.)

[READ: What Do Kids Learn in Kindergarten?]

Becoming bored is also a concern for older children. Irwin says that sometimes, “you’ll see that a typically developing child … becomes frustrated with less mature classmates.”

Lisa Fiore, a professor and chair of the education department at Lesley University in Massachusetts, notes that skills associated with kindergarten readiness can develop quickly. “A child who can not do something … at age 4 might be doing it at 4.9,” she says. Conceivably, a child who doesn’t appear mature enough to start kindergarten during the typical spring enrollment period could be ready by the time school starts in the fall.

Finally, experts say the financial burden associated with another year of child care or preschool is a challenge for many families.

The COVID Effect

Today, kids who are entering kindergarten are in a situation that most research on redshirting doesn’t account for: Much of their early development happened during the unusual circumstances associated with the pandemic.

Irwin says that kids missed out on early learning experiences due to preschool and daycare closures and capacity restrictions, as well as parents choosing to keep them home. She says that current 4-and-5-year-olds have likely “experienced more isolation than any cohort of kids ever have in the history of our country.” Because of this, she calls in-person school attendance “critical.”

Fiore agrees that COVID-19 affected kids’ social development. Because so many were isolated for so long, she says, they’re “just a little behind in some ways in learning how to negotiate or compromise.”

[READ: What is Transitional Kindergarten?]

Hillery Hentges, the lead kindergarten teacher at North Broadway Children’s Center in Columbus, cites these challenges as reasons for families to consider delaying kindergarten in favor of another year in preschool. Because of the skills and structure many kids missed out on, Hentges says a kindergarten classroom might feel overwhelming. “I think there is a really great benefit to taking an extra year if you don’t feel like your kid is going to be successful in a very busy structured classroom setting.”

Extra time in a play-based preschool could help, she says: “That type of play builds all the skills that you need; from your hand strength to your social skills to your language development.”

How to Tell if Your Child Is Kindergarten-Ready

If your child is currently in a preschool or pre-K program, experts say a conversation with those teachers is a good place to start in deciding whether to enroll in kindergarten. Talking to your child’s pediatrician can also help you understand your child’s readiness, Irwin says. She notes that students often take a kindergarten readiness assessment, and parents can request a conversation with the evaluator about their child’s preparedness.

Visiting prospective kindergartens on school tours and speaking with teachers and administrators in the buildings can provide a sense of their expectations and your child’s ability to meet them.

Fiore suggests listing out what worries and excites you about having your child start school as a strategy to help you make the decision. Finally, if you do opt to wait until your child is older to start kindergarten, experts say to make sure they are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.

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