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128: Should I Redshirt My Child?
24th January 2021 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 01:06:08

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Parents - worried about their child's lack of maturity or ability to 'fit in' in a classroom environment - often ask me whether they should hold their child back a year before entering kindergarten or first grade.  In this episode I review the origins of the redshirting phenomenon (which lie in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and which statisticians say contained some seriously dodgy math), what it means for your individual child, as well as for the rest of the children in the class so you can make an informed decision.   Jump to highlights:
  • (01:00) Malcolm Gladwell's anecdote about the Junior League Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants ice hockey teams that initiated the redshirting craze
  • (02:56) Ability grouping is done in early childhood, just like in sports
  • (03:59) Parents holding their children back from kindergarten came to be referred to as redshirting
  • (10:20) How common is redshirting?
  • (11:04) Boys are redshirted at a ratio of 2:1 compared to girls
  • (12:18) The maturationist approach of why to redshirt
  • (13:05) State support and agenda for redshirting
  • (15:10) Teachers tendency to view a maturationist view of development.
  • (17:16) The Maturation Hypothesis
  • (17:36) Parents redshirt their children to give their child an advantage
  • (20:34) Redshirting as a way to give boys age and size advantage and avoid getting bullied
  • (27:28) Making a judgement call into what benefits mean with regards to the body of research on redshirting
  • (29:24) The evidence of whether redshirting is beneficial
  • (35:19) Misdiagnosis of ADHD caused by relative maturity
  • (37:56) A year outside of school reduces the likelihood that children receive timely identifications of learning difficulties
  • (38:35) Students with speech impairments may actually benefit from redshirting
  • (39:22) Redshirted students may have more behavioral problems in high school
  • (46:04) Children from higher socioeconomic status are more likely to perform well in tests in kindergarten
  • (48:19) It’s possible that the way the teacher sees the child is what helps the child because of Labelling Theory
  • (49:46) Opportunity hoarding associated with middle-class, White parents.
  • (52:01) Is kindergarten truly the new first grade?
  • (56:06) Advocating for Developmentally Appropriate Practice or DAP
  • (57:35) Almost everyone agrees that retention has negative impacts on children
  • (58:55) Accumulative Advantage
  • (01:00:07) Malcolm Gladwell’s proposed solution to homogenize and my thoughts on it
  • (01:02:32) Summary
  • (01:04:56) Why I think asking "should I redshirt my child" is the wrong question
  Books and Resources:   Links:   Join our the YPM Facebook Community:   [accordion] [accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"] Jen  00:02 Hi, I'm Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting.   Jen  00:29 If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a FREE guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won't Listen to You and What to do About Each One, just head over to You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners and the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group.   Jen  00:48 I do hope you'll join us.   Jen  01:00 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  We have an odd person to thank for what has turned into a bit of an epic episode, and that’s Malcolm Gladwell.  His 2011 book Outliers: The story of success opens with an anecdote about the junior league Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants ice hockey teams.  The point of the book is to demonstrate that personal explanations of success that draw on a narrative of self-made brilliance have a lot more to them – that successful people are the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and opportunities that help to give them a leg up in a way that isn’t open to most of us.  In the example of the ice hockey teams in the book (which we’re calling ice hockey for my English listeners, to distinguish it from actual hockey, which is played on a grass field), Paula Barnsley, who is the wife of psychologist Dr. Roger Barnsley, noticed during a game that the majority of the players on teams just like the Medicine Hat Tigers and Vancouver Giants had birthdays that clustered in a certain way.  Roger Barnsley went home and researched all the junior league players he could, and then the national league, and found that in any elite group of ice hockey players, 40% of the plyers will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, and 20% between October and December (Gladwell doesn’t say what happened to the 10% born between July and September).  Barnsley said that “In all my years in psychology I have never run into an effect this large.  You don’t even need to do any statistical analysis.  You just look at it.”   Jen  02:28 The reason for this is that the eligibility cutoff for age class hockey is January 1, which means that children born at on January 2nd are a whole year older than children born on December 31st, which is a large proportion of a young child’s life.  The same effect replicates in baseball and football (which I refuse to call “soccer”), because these also have similar age cutoffs in youth sports.   Jen  02:56 Then there’s a half page of text that really caught parents’ ears – reference to a study by two economists who looked at the relationship between scores on a standardized test, and the child’s age at the time of taking the test, and the effect was found here as well.  One of the authors of that paper, Dr. Elizabeth Dhuey, was quoted as saying “Just like in sports, we do ability grouping early on in childhood…so, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability.  And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year, the same things happen, and they do even better again.”  Dr. Dhuey subsequently looked at college students and found that students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6%.  Gladwell concludes: “That initial difference in maturity doesn’t go away with time. It persists. And for thousands of students, that initial disadvantage is the difference between going to college – and having a real shot at the middle class – and not.”   Jen  03:59 Now those words are almost guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of parents, even though the real problem here is the perception that college is the only path to “having a real shot at the middle class,” who responded by holding their children back from kindergarten when their birthdays were within the last few months of the kindergarten eligibility cutoff.  In the U.S., this practice came to be known as redshirting, which is a term borrowed from sports.  In college athletics, which is big business in the U.S., athletes are only allowed to play for four years but they might ‘redshirt’ the first year which means they wouldn’t formally participate in competition while they get bigger and stronger.  Then they can still play four years after that.  But they’re not just sitting out in that year; they’re practicing with the team and getting bigger and stronger, and they wear a red shirt in practice to indicate that they’re in redshirt status.  From what I’ve read on Wikipedia a coach can tell you at the beginning of the year that you’re redshirting but it isn’t confirmed until the end of the season, so if the star quarterback gets injured then the redshirted player can give up their redshirt status and still play.  So that aspect doesn’t come into play in the academic setting, but the practice of holding a child out of kindergarten for the year when they are technically eligible to attend has become widely referred to as redshirting, and that’s what we’re going to discuss today.   Jen  05:11 In some ways this was a very easy episode to research, and in other ways it was incredibly difficult.  We’re going to aim to answer a series of questions:   Jen  05:20 How common is redshirting?   Jen  05:22 Who does it and why do they do it?   Jen  05:24 What are the benefits of red shirting and who realizes those benefits?   Jen  05:28 And if someone benefits, who is on the other end of the stick and misses out?   Jen  05:33 And then in conclusion, what does the preponderance of the evidence indicate about whether we should redshirt our children or not?   Jen  05:39 Now before we get going on these interesting and important topics, I do want to take a slight detour here to make sure we're all together and understanding the kinds of data and analysis that we're working with here. In many ways, this episode was an incredible relief to research because there's been a lot of interest in the topic, so papers were really easy to find, and the majority of them are based on State-level or National-level datasets.   Jen  06:02 So often on the show, I have to caveat the findings by saying, "Well, now I do have to warn you this study is based on what five White people in Chicago told a researcher." or "This study is based on 100 college students who receive course credit for participating." Here, our datasets are amazing. There are a couple of qualitative studies where researchers are interviewing just a few people, but these add a richness to the quantitative data that would otherwise be missing. The majority of the data sets are produced by State-level records of children's birth and enrollment in school and standardized test scores with some National-level data produced in the same ways as well, combined with National-level surveys of teachers. Researchers using this data are trying to find out what happens under normal conditions when nothing is being manipulated and find correlations between things they think are related. Of course, the problem with correlational data is we can't be sure that just because the two factors vary together that one causes the other. For example, we can find data showing that as seatbelt usage increased in cars in the 1990s, that far fewer astronauts died in spacecraft. So should we try to save astronauts life by putting on our seatbelt, maybe not.   Jen  07:08 And then sometimes States do things like change the cutoff date for kindergarten entry, and that creates what researchers call quasi-experimental data. And we can see what happens when conditions change, and people aren't allowed to do something that they could have chosen to do in the past. And this can help us to get a bit closer to a Cause-and-Effect relationship. Although these effects may not be generalizable outside the area where the experiment happened. But we do have to be a little bit careful with big data sets. One of these issues doesn't apply so much to us, which is the problem of having a sample size that doesn't accurately reflect the population. There's a nice example in one of the papers and the references about a survey of 2.4 million people, which indicated that Governor Alfred Landon of Kansas would win the 1936 election by a landslide. Now you've heard of President Landon, right? If not, that's because the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won 46 of the then 48 States. The magazine that ran the poll surveyed its own readers who skewed towards supporting Governor Landon, so the poll respondents didn't accurately reflect the actual population it was trying to measure.   Jen  08:13 In the State-level data, it's possible the results wouldn't be generalizable to populations outside the State, but they do include the vast, vast majority of students inside the State. They might exclude students who opted out of standardized testing, for example, but we have a number of National-level data sets as well, and these National-level data sets don't necessarily include every child in the country, but they are specifically designed to be representative. So, our data sets are often fully representative of the population, and when they're not, these are very large data sets designed to be nationally representative.   Jen  08:47 And the second thing to be aware of when you're looking at working with large data sets is differences between the two conditions you're studying can look statistically significant very easily. You could get a result with a State or National-level data set, that's statistically significant at p = 0.05, which is the generally accepted standard, but which has an effect size that's tiny and inconsequential to your life. And I always think back to research on tantrums on this topic, which might find that parents who take a certain action when their child's having a tantrum can achieve a statistically significant reduction in the frequency of tantrums their child has. Doesn't that sound amazing? Well, it ends up being a reduction from something like 15 to 14 tantrums a day. Is that change meaningful in a parent's life? No, it is not.   Jen  09:33 And so one final thing to be aware of in this data is that it isn't always super current. Even when I restrict my searches to papers published in the last five years, the data they often use is far older, especially when you're looking at long term effects. You have to look at data from when children were in school 20 years ago, so we can't be sure that educational methods use then are comparable to what's used today. We'll come back to the idea of there being more standardized testing now than there was in the past even in kindergarten, so the educational conditions that were in place when children were redshirted 20 years ago, and they're experiencing certain outcomes now are no longer in place for your child to experience. So a study might find that children who attended kindergarten on time in the 1980s had better lifetime outcomes, but the kind of kindergarten those children attended doesn't exist anymore.   Jen  10:20 All right, so now we're all square on that. Our first question, How common is red shirting is actually excitingly easy to answer. A pretty good conservative estimate came up with a US national average prevalence rate of four to five and a half percent, which in a way makes us wonder why are we even doing a whole episode on it if it's just a small percentage of people that this affects. But the national average conceals considerable variation within specific schools and demographics. In one fifth of schools that serve primarily families of high socioeconomic status, redshirting rates can be as high as 15% of all children, which translates to 60% of children being born within the three months before the cutoff for kindergarten entry being redshirted.   Jen  11:04 All right on to our next question. Who redshirts and why do they do it? Nearly 6% of White children redshirt. But fewer than 1% of Black children do. About 2% of Hispanic and 2.7% of Asian children redshirt. About 2.3% of children in the lowest socio-economic status quintile redshirt compared to 6.4% of children in the highest quintile. Boys are held back in far larger numbers than girls by a ratio of about two to one. The most surprising finding about redshirting rates occurred after North Carolina adjusted its cutoff date to enter kindergarten from October 16 to September 1 in 2006 - we're going to come back to the data on this study pretty often - and the rate of redshirting essentially went to nil. The authors of that study say that these findings suggest that children's absolute age rather than age relative to classmates plays a dominant role in the decision to redshirt.   Jen  11:58 Children who had been born in October would have previously been considered for redshirting, but the authors wondered, "Well did parents of August-born children just start redshirting instead? And it turned out they didn't. For reasons the authors didn't seem to be able to explain. And the rate of redshirting for children born between September 1 and October 16, was close to zero.   Jen  12:18 So why do parents redshirt their children? While allowing children's absolute age to increase before they enter school is one reason which is based on the idea that children need to be mature enough when they enter school to be successful primarily because this increases children's attention spans, their tolerance for seated instruction, and it improves their behavior. This approach to looking at redshirting has been around since the 1960s and 70s, when researchers at the Gesell Institute argued that children should be entered in school grouped and promoted on the basis of their developmental or behavioral age, not on the basis of their chronological age or IQ. The book School Can Wait was published in 1979 and perhaps this accounts for the fairly large number of parents of my generation who were surveyed about their decision to redshirt their child who report having been redshirted themselves.   Jen  13:04 In addition to popular books, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm for redshirting expressed in journal articles in this period. Like this statement from a paper in the journal education: "Redshirting is a program that can be applied at any level of the educational system nationwide, statewide district-wide or in an individual classroom