Our son Isaac was three years old when we moved from suburban Winnipeg to rural Ontario. Despite his six-month-old sister Gillian being the youngest in the family, I couldn’t help but feel Isaac was still my baby. Born on December 24, 2006, he was small for his age and people would often remark on his extensive vocabulary “for such a little boy.” They always looked so surprised when I told them that he wasn’t a toddler anymore.
Yet, despite being able to check off every box on the school readiness questionnaire—which consisted of things like potty training, dressing independently and following simple two-step instructions—the decision to enrol him in Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program was one that both my husband and I struggled with. I read all of the research I could find on the benefits and drawbacks of full-day kindergarten and relentlessly quizzed every teacher I knew on what they would do if it was their kid.
Even then, I left registration until the very last moment and, on the first day of school, I reluctantly put Isaac on the bus. At the end of the day (and at the end of every day in the following months), my three-year-old was exhausted and irritable. At least once a month he had a cold or ear infection. He was noticeably smaller than all his classmates and struggled to keep up with them on the playground.
I couldn’t help but feel I’d made a horrible mistake. I wondered if I should have held Isaac back, effectively “redshirting” my December baby.
Redshirting kindergarten: New data on when to start school
The term “redshirting” entered the mainstream with the release of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Redshirting was most often done with college freshmen athletes when coaches would hold a player back for a year until the athlete was bigger and stronger. The concept is the same in kindergarten—holding back a kid for a year so they’ll be just as socially, physically and cognitively advanced as their classmates. But is redshirting actually an advantage when school admissions are based on birth year rather than age?
In 2011, The New York Times looked at the issue. Citing Canadian research, they found that first-graders who were young for their year made more academic progress than kindergarteners who were old for their year. This suggests that being the youngest in the classroom might actually benefit kids more than keeping them at home for an extra year.
The age at which a kid can start kindergarten varies from province to province. For example, kids as young as three years old are eligible to start junior kindergarten in Ontario (provided they are four years old by December 31 the year they start). In the Edmonton Public School Board, kids who are four years of age on or before March 1 can register for kindergarten. The Ministry of Education in Manitoba state that the average age of students enrolled in kindergarten is five years. In Nova Scotia, the Department of Education accepts kids who are five by December 31. In Saskatchewan, legislation gives school divisions the authority to set the age of entry for their kindergarten programs; there is no provincial regulation or policy. However, most divisions require students to be five years old by January 31 of the year they begin kindergarten.
As with all school boards and ministries of education across the country, junior kindergarten is an optional year of schooling for students. But if your child is enrolled with their peers, would there actually be a benefit if you’d kept them out for a year?
Isaac entered grade four this September and is now six years into his academic career. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first three years were a challenge. It always seemed like we were playing a game of catch-up, with his reading, writing and math skills lagging behind those of his classmates born earlier in the year. But by grade two, these concepts seemed to click and the work ethic that it took to get him there stuck, too. Now, instead of thinking about what a mistake it was to send him to school when he was still my baby, I’m happy that I did.
This article was originally published online in September 2015.