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Debate Club: Is Academic Redshirting Helpful or Harmful


Harmful : Some people are just gaming the system

By Kate Rosin

My friend, Amy, needed some advice. It was April and her daughter, Emma, had just turned four. Emma’s preschool teacher had assured Amy and her husband that their extremely bright little girl was more than ready to start kindergarten in the fall, but Amy wasn’t sure if early enrollment was the right decision. She wanted my opinion.

“Don’t do it,” I told her firmly.

“Why?” she asked. “Do you think she’s too young?”

“She is young, especially when you consider the age of the kids she’d be in classes with for the next 13 years.”

“I know she would definitely be one of the youngest kids in her grade,” Amy acknowledged. “But she’s pretty mature for her age.”

“Even so, you have to be aware that if you enroll Emma in kindergarten this year, some of the kids in her class could be up to two years older.”

“Wait, what?”

“Redshirting,” I told her. “It screws up everything.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, academic redshirting is the parental practice of postponing kindergarten for a child who meets the enrollment age requirement and, technically, could begin attending school. (The term “redshirt” originated in collegiate athletics as a shorthand designation for an athlete whose participation in a sport has been intentionally delayed in order to extend the length of his or her eligibility period, providing the player with more time to develop skills and mature.)

Academic redshirting is, without a doubt, the right and sensible choice for children who are genuinely not ready to begin kindergarten. A kid who has a late birthday or a disability, or lacks the emotional maturity to handle the more structured kindergarten environment, should absolutely wait another year. These are the very reasons – the very legitimate reasons – parents have always had the option to hold their kids back.

Like most policies that emerge from legitimate reasons, however, the option to delay kindergarten has been distorted and abused by parents who are essentially gaming the system. Instead of basing their enrollment decisions on valid developmental concerns, some parents choose to postpone the start of kindergarten for their children – even if they are physically, emotionally, and intellectually ready – solely so they can enjoy the long-term advantages that come from being older.

What advantages do older children have in school? Like the redshirt college freshman who got an extra year to hone his skills on the football field, an academically redshirted child has more time to develop emotionally and intellectually, which may translate into greater success in the classroom. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, must then differentiate instruction even more than usual to accommodate the considerable gap between the maturity and ability levels of five- and six-year-old students.

Older, redshirted kids who had another year to grow physically also have a clear advantage on the athletic field. Physically larger boys or girls who are stronger, more intimidating, and have a better cognitive grasp of strategy often stand out in youth athletic programs at a very early age. Stronger athletes tend to get more playing time, better coaching, and more opportunities to play on elite teams.

While offering numerous advantages to some kids, redshirting, a kind of a luxury available only to families who can afford to keep their children out of kindergarten and in preschool for an additional year, puts other children at a distinct disadvantage. Children from low-income families who enter kindergarten with no previous school experience, for example, must then compete with redshirt students who have at least 12 months of additional educational and cultural experiences.

Still don’t think redshirting is a big deal? Think ahead to the vulnerable 14-year-old girl in class with 16-year-old boys, or the underprivileged high school athlete who needs an athletic scholarship to attend college, or the college graduate losing a year’s worth of earned income to a decision his parents made when he was five. Academic redshirting skews the American education system, increases disparity among students, and alters outcomes for all kids – redshirted or not – with consequences that can extend well beyond the kindergarten classroom.

Helpful : Some kids really need that extra year

by: Tina Donvito

My birthday is November 19. When I entered school, I made it in just before the cutoff of December 1. I excelled academically, but socially I struggled. It wasn’t until I had my own child and read about the debate over “redshirting,” the practice of holding an of-age child back for a real or perceived advantage in school, that I realized my age might have had something to do with it.

As I came to understand how the timing of your birthday can affect your school experience, I realized the crippling shyness and social awkwardness I faced in my youth might just have been immaturity, because I was one of the youngest students in the class.

My son’s birthday is August 26, with a school cutoff of October 1. As if the lateness of his birthday wasn’t enough of a concern (especially since boys notoriously mature slower than girls), Sam is also a small guy, usually coming in at the 10th percentile. But he has a strong personality, so I was less worried about him being bullied for his physical size and more worried about how he always seemed to meet his milestones late. A hearing check at the request of our early intervention team revealed that he does, in fact, have hearing loss, which accounted for his delayed speech.

As a child with a disability, my son might be the exception to the redshirting rule, even among those who are staunchly opposed to it. (Children with disabilities definitely benefit from early education but the question of whether to push them forward is still up for debate.) But I sometimes wonder: What if my son just had a run-of-the-mill speech delay? What if he was, as I initially thought, just hitting his milestones at the late end of normal? What if he, with a late summer birthday, just wasn’t at the maturity level of most of his peers? Strict cutoffs do not allow for the variety of growth that even typical children experience.

I’m not advocating that every student with a late summer birthday be redshirted. If a child is ready, he or she should be sent to school. The issue of “readiness,” though, is not always black and white – if a parent wants to hold a child back, who’s to say if the reason is legitimate or if they just want their kid to be bigger and better at sports?

Cutoffs, by their very nature, are arbitrary. When I was in school, the cutoff was December 1, but my son is up against October 1. Still other districts have a September 1 cutoff. These are crucial months for young children to mature. Although redshirting could just, in effect, shift the cutoff (so now those with spring birthdays would be the youngest), parents should still have the option to do what’s in the best interest of their child.

I know there are other issues at play, but these are less about redshirting itself than reflections of larger societal problems. For instance, there is the argument that redshirting is unfair particularly to disadvantaged kids whose parents might not be able to pay for another year of preschool; so they get sent ahead while more well-off children are given the benefit of one more year to mature. This may very well be true, but I think it speaks more to the unfairness of the American education system in general rather than the individual decisions of parents.

I also heard one mother freak out that her daughter, who had a late summer birthday, would enter high school on time at 13 and potentially be in contact with 19-year-old seniors – “men,” as she called them – who had been redshirted. But this would probably be rare: Most redshirted kids would still graduate at 18. And even though that’s still a big age difference, I believe the fear is misplaced, and has to do more with rape culture and the way boys are brought up than it does with their age.

The concern for parents of younger kids entering school is also growing because of the increased pressure on kindergartners. Parents fear that if their kids don’t have all the right skills entering kindergarten, which has turned into “the new first grade,” they’ll fall behind and won’t do as well on the tests they are now required to take.

And it’s hard for teachers, too, who could potentially have a wider range of abilities to teach to, with some kids practically reading while others not even knowing the full alphabet. Again, blame the American school system for this conundrum.

Perhaps a solution, one that would doubtless require additional resources from already thinly stretched school districts, would be to evaluate children who have birthdays within a “grace period” around the cutoff, if the parents wish it. This would allow for a more individualized education plan for every student. Decisions about a child’s future should be made between parents and teachers together in good faith – neither to give a child an unfair advantage, or to deny a child the right to school readiness before being thrust into kindergarten.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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