As back-to-school season gets underway, many parents are wondering what to do. Changing CDC guidelines, regular quarantines of entire classrooms due to possible virus exposure, ongoing virus concerns, and battles about school masking policies are causing parents to second-guess sending their children into a classroom this fall.
This is especially true for parents of rising kindergarteners.
On Saturday, The New York Times reported on the “kindergarten exodus” that occurred last year, as over one million students avoided enrolling in a local district school. Nearly 350,000 of them were kindergarteners whose parents decided to avoid early school enrollment and keep their children at home.
This trend appears to be continuing this fall, as parents delay their child’s school entry, often known as “redshirting.” The term “redshirting” is used in college sports to refer to the practice of athletes opting out of a year of competition to allow them an extra year of athletic eligibility, while gaining skills and strength.
Kindergarten “redshirting” is when parents forgo school enrollment until their children are older, and the pandemic response seems to be accelerating the practice. Kindergarten registrations are down in many places this year, including one school district highlighted by the Times that began the new school year on August 3rd with 42 percent fewer kindergarteners than in 2019.
While the Times laments this kindergarten exodus, asserting that “there is no great substitute for quality, in-person kindergarten,” some research suggests otherwise.
In 2018, for example, Harvard researchers found that early school enrollment was correlated with higher diagnosis of and treatment for Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), especially among boys. The researchers analyzed data from the states with a September 1st kindergarten enrollment age cut-off date, finding that the youngest children in their kindergarten class were much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in the class. Indeed, the newly-minted 5-year-olds with August birthdays were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those children who were born in September and were about to turn 6.
“It is possible that younger children within a grade cohort may be more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than older children in the same grade because inattentive behavior that is developmentally determined may be attributed to ADHD rather than to younger age,” the Harvard researchers concluded in their New England Journal of Medicine paper.
It doesn’t take a Harvard degree to recognize this. Any parent of young children knows what a big difference a year can make in early childhood. A fresh 5-year-old is much less likely to sit still and pay attention in a classroom than a new six-year-old. The Harvard researchers pointed out that teachers and other school staff are generally the ones to first label a child as having ADHD, not parents or physicians. What is normal developmental behavior for a young child can quickly become pathologized in today’s kindergarten classrooms.
This situation has only worsened over the past two decades, as rigid curriculum frameworks and frequent standardized testing have infiltrated public schools. Stemming from federal No Child Left Behind legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, and reauthorized by President Barack Obama in 2010, one-size-fits-all curriculum and testing have become commonplace in the nation’s schools. This has led to changes in academic practices and expectations that can be detrimental, particularly for younger children.
For instance, there is now a widespread curriculum expectation that kindergarteners should be reading and, if they’re not, they may be labeled as delayed. Teachers have rapidly responded to these arbitrary, changing expectations. In a paper titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” University of Virginia researchers found that in 1998, 31 percent of teachers expected children to learn to read in kindergarten. By 2010, 80 percent of teachers expected this.
Redshirting your kindergartener may be beneficial, particularly if your child may be among the youngest in the class or is otherwise not yet developmentally ready to sit still and do academic work in a formal classroom. With the added uncertainty of coronavirus-related school policies, this fall may be a particularly good time to keep kids home and find other options for their education.
The Associated Press recently reported that many of the millions of parents who chose homeschooling last year due to school shutdowns and related policies are “now opting to homeschool their children, even as schools plan to resume in-person classes.”
Others are choosing virtual learning options not tied to their school district. That’s what some of the parents spotlighted in the weekend Times article are planning. One Philadelphia mother, Gina Ramirez, who previously switched her older daughter to a virtual school from a district school because she “had withered there,” decided to enroll her kindergartener in the same virtual school last year. She will keep her there this year citing the low-performing city public schools.
Her child “is thriving academically,” reported the Times. “The 6-year-old is learning Spanish and sign language, and counts by 5s and 10s. But that’s mostly because of countless one-on-one sessions with her mother, who works occasionally as a babysitter.”
Greater family participation in learning, as well as a more personalized timetable for academic and emotional development, can be valuable for a child’s early education, as many parents have discovered over the past year. Their children are able to learn at their own pace, with parent support and without top-down expectations for academic and classroom behavior that may be developmentally inappropriate for some young children.
Far from lamenting the “kindergarten exodus” from district schools, we should celebrate the parents who are reassuming responsibility for their children’s education away from government bureaucrats and teachers unions. These parents are realizing that they have more and better learning options available to their children than they previously thought, and they are opting for education models that prioritize personalization and flexibility over standardization and rigidity.
I write about some of these learning models in my new ebook, The 2021 Curious Parent’s Guide to Education Options, available to download for free here.
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