When my 14-year-old son Milo was in kindergarten in 2010, his then new best friend shared his birthday. They enjoyed the same games and had similar toys. They had so much in common. However, Milo’s pal was exactly a year older. More than half of the boys and a smattering of girls in Milo’s class were repeating kindergarten.
Much of the academic redshirting was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s popular and influential book “The Outliers,” which was published in 2008. Gladwell contends that in competitive situations, a person who’s a bit older than the others will likely be more successful.
His theory, which is chronicled in Chapter 1 of his bestseller, is based on a group of players who were part of a Canadian Hockey League team. In the world of youth ice hockey, it runs by calendar year. Gladwell wrote that children born during the first four months of the year were more accomplished. Gladwell insisted that the older, more physically developed children would be more productive and would then benefit from better coaching and resources and have a better chance of becoming a professional.
Examining birthdates of NHL players refutes Gladwell’s claim, but many parents bought into the take that older children have a better chance at succeeding and conveniently glossed over the chapter in “The Outliers” that suggests honing your skills for 10,000 hours. A friend who held her son back insisted that she was giving her son the gift of time. I countered that, saying I would be stealing a year of my son’s life if I opted for retention.
Some school districts across the country are numbers-driven. While at a parent-teacher conference for my aforementioned son, his second-grade instructor mentioned retention. “If Milo repeated this grade, he would be at the top of his grade next year.” I explained to her that I would rather Milo be at the head of the class he is supposed to be in.
A parent who has a child older than Milo in the prior grade explained to me why her son was held back: “Because I wanted it to be as competitive as possible for him.” I told her I would buy her a dictionary for her birthday so she could properly define competitive. So many mothers and fathers are tempted to delay the start of their child’s academic career since they believe there is an advantage.
And then there are the other type of parents who would rather push their children. I covered a Major League Baseball beat for more than a decade and had the opportunity to become well-acquainted with Cole Hamels. The four-time All Star and 2008 World Series MVP and his wife Heidi Strobel, who was part of Season 6 of “Survivor,” are innately competitive.
During a charity event a decade ago, the couple lamented that their then-toddlers Braxton and Caleb, who were each born in October, just missed the Pennsylvania school cutoff of Sept. 1. “Heidi and I would rather they start kindergarten when they’re 4 years old so they can be where they need to be.”
It wasn’t surprising that Hamels wanted his kids to play up since the cerebral jock challenged himself his entire life on the field and in the classroom. Hamels, who is the only baseball player I ever witnessed reading a novel almost every day in the clubhouse, values education.
So there are three ways to go with a child. Keep your progeny with his age group, opt for retention or apply for early admission. The good news is that all are in play for those in Spokane.
The Spokane school district is one of the few on the east side of the state that will consider admitting children early. Registration opens every year on March 1. There is a 30-day trial for those entering kindergarten at 4, according to Spokane Public Schools Elementary English Language Arts coordinator Karin Thompson.
“The teachers and principal examine those children for a month, and the parents are told to have a plan B,” Thompson said while calling from her Spokane Valley home. “That’s what they need to know even though they believe their children will be bored at 4 if they aren’t in kindergarten. But what we look at more is the social rather than the academic. Children need to be socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten.”
The same criteria are there for those who are 5 years old. “The children need to successfully express their feelings without hitting, biting and grabbing,” Thompson said.
The reason for the necessary maturity isn’t just to give teachers a break. According to a study by Duke and Penn State universities, it’s best for a child’s long-term academic success to be ready for the first step in elementary education.
Duke and PSU studied children for more than 20 years and discovered that socially competent children in kindergarten were much more likely to have a college degree and a full-time job by 25. Socially limited children have an increased chance of negative outcomes, including addictions, being arrested and unemployed. However, this doesn’t mean that the school district is looking to redshirt children so that more are apt to be ready for kindergarten.
“If the children are 5 and they meet the age deadlines, they should go to kindergarten,” Thompson said. “If they meet the age deadlines, we’re not a strong supporter of retention. Over the years, retention has been a very rare recommendation. There are a number of reasons children should move on.
“If they are in an established peer group, moving forward is a good thing. Keeping a child back as they watch their friends move on can have a negative impact. What parents need to realize is that any short-term gain due to retention is not connected to long-term success. Parents have to get their kids over the hump at some point.”
Thompson, a mother of four children, speaks from experience. Her eldest, Paulson, 17, is a senior at Running Start; Addi, 14, is a freshman at Central Valley High School; Emme, 13, attends Greenacres Middle School; and Cascade, 6, is a first-grader at Greenacres Elementary. The latter Thompson was born in August and was on the bubble when it came to kindergarten.
“She was ready academically, but I wasn’t so sure socially and emotionally,” Thompson said. “It was a rough three or four weeks to start with. She wanted her mom at the end of the day, like kids do at that point. But she made it over the hump and did great. But parents may not realize how exhausting a day of kindergarten is for these kids. They need plenty of support even if they’re totally ready. It’s a huge transition period for kids. As parents, we have to figure out what’s best for them.
“Every kid is different. Some are ready to go to kindergarten early, for some it’s best to go late, and then there are most kids who are ready at 5. Once the kids are ready, it’s a rewarding experience. You want to challenge them and have them work and come out on the right end of a productive struggle. We have so many great kindergarten teachers in Spokane. When your kids are ready, the teachers will be ready for your children.”
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