Every fall, parents of prospective Kindergarten entrants, especially those whose children have birthdays close to the Kindergarten entry cutoff date, or have boys (who are typically perceived to mature slower than girls), struggle with the decision about whether to hold their child back for another year or let them start school as soon as they become eligible. In recent years, more and more parents are choosing to hold their child back from Kindergarten for a year, a practice often called ‘academic redshirting’.
The debate around school entry age originated earlier in the 1970s as states started raising their minimum entrance age for kindergarten in response to the growing emphasis on accountability, school readiness, and academic standards. These policy changes continue even today. The most recent change took place in California, where the date by which a child has to be 5 years old to become eligible for Kindergarten moved by one month every year starting in 2011, from December 2nd that year to September 2nd in 2014.
At what age children should start school is controversial because there are reasonable arguments supporting both on-time and delayed school entry. Supporters of delayed school entry argue that it will provide children an extra year of out-of-school time for additional family nurturing and biological maturation. However, opponents argue that schools can provide a nurturing environment to promote children’s development and learning, particularly for children in less advantaged homes where financial and non-monetary resources to support an additional year of child care (and hence additional nurturing) are relatively sparse. In addition, a child’s age relative to his or her classmates might also be important for their learning and development, and not surprisingly, there are arguments in favor of being the youngest and oldest in the class. Therefore, the question remains an empirical one.
So, what does research tell us about the short- and long-term effects of on-time versus delayed entry? A large body of research, including our own work has examined how school entry age affects children’s academic achievement in school. A consistent finding in this literature is that delayed school entry gives a big boost to achievement early on in school, which is not surprising, but that this initial advantage generally disappears by the end of elementary school. There is less research about how school entry age affects children’s non-cognitive or “soft” skills, which includes things like motivation, self-control, and social-behavioral skills such as peer relations, interpersonal skills, externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors. In fact, one might expect that entry age might affect achievement through its impact first on non-cognitive skills. Indeed, teachers place more emphasis on behavior readiness at the time of school entry relative to academic skills.
In a recent paper, we examined how school entry age affected children’s non-cognitive skills in a national longitudinal sample of U.S. Kindergarteners who were followed till 8th grade. We found that similar to the findings for academic achievement, school entry age had a positive effect on children’s non-cognitive skills during elementary school, but these effects largely disappeared by the end of middle school. A relatively smaller body of research has examined longer-term effects of school entry age on labor market outcomes in adulthood but has generally found no effects. Regarding the issue of whether delaying is more beneficial for boys versus girls, there is no consistent evidence to suggest one way or another.
Given that any beneficial effects of delaying school entry age are largely limited to the early school years, what does this mean for parents, educators and policy-makers? Some parents may still want to delay their child’s school entry due to this advantage in the early years. In fact, some research shows that early success in school is a strong predictor of later outcomes such as test scores in later grades, educational attainment and labor market outcomes. Moreover, in some school settings where children are “tracked” based on their academic achievement in the early grades, parents may have an incentive to delay their child’s entry. However, delaying school entry does not come without costs. These costs may be in the form of additional child care costs for the extra year out of school, especially for those considering public school education. Children from disadvantaged families who may not have access to high-quality child care could fare even worse from delaying school entry. Studies have also found that delaying school entry may lead to fewer years of schooling eventually because many students choose to drop out of school as soon as they cross the compulsory education age threshold.
So overall, this suggests that there are several tradeoffs to consider when deciding whether delaying school entry is the best option. Given that the benefits and costs may vary across families and that the effects on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes are short lived, the case for blanket policies that raise school entry age for all by moving cut off dates earlier becomes much weaker. Instead, policies focused on the design and implementation of developmentally appropriate curriculum in preschool and early grades that address the varying developmental stages of young children are a better bet.