My article on kindergarten redshirting (i.e. holding a child back a year before entering kindergarten) this past spring elicited heated comments on both sides of the debate. There, I announced that my wife and I had decided not to redshirt my son Marco, born in July of 2004.
Well, in the past week and a half, we’ve had a change of heart. We scrambled to find a spot in a good “Young 5s” or “Pre-K” program for him, and we found one. We just informed our neighborhood elementary school, Oak Knoll in Menlo Park, that he would not be attending this fall.
So, why did we change our minds?
I should start by stating why we were so resistant to changing in the first place. We believe deeply in a strong ethic of personal responsibility. More specifically, we do not think it’s right to search for any way we can to get an advantage over others. I wrote:
My fundamental problem with redshirting Marco, who is not seriously missing any developmental minimums for kindergarten, is that doing so would make him like the kid taking ADHD drugs who doesn’t need them or the child of deep-pockets donors. He would always think of himself as age-privileged, so he could never be certain if his accomplishments relative to other kids at school were due to that advantage or to his merit.
What’s changed is that we’ve had to admit that Marco is missing an important “developmental minimum” – a social skills issue. We’d thought that he’d come around in the last year, but in the last few months, we’ve observed that he hasn’t.
His issue is that he doesn’t have a clue how to be friends with other kids his age. He never seeks out kids he knows, and when we’ve taken him to see kids he talks to us about, he doesn’t talk to them at all. He usually just stands frozen, watching them. In the few times when he has interacted with them, he’s usually been selfish and pouty, alienating these kids.
After the last negative episode like this a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I imagined that Marco would probably be lonely and sad in kindergarten. A kindergarten day is a long day, and teachers don’t devote much time to social skills or play because they have so much academic material to cover. (See The Alliance for Childhood web site for information on the harmful effects of the increased academic nature of kindergarten.)
We couldn’t bear the thought of our five-year-old being sad every day for a year, so we acted quickly to find a spot in a kindergarten-like program that does emphasize social skills building. We found one at the Periwinkle School in Palo Alto, CA, and we’re thrilled! From what we can tell, like kindergartens of decades ago, it places roughly equal priority on social skills and academic skill building. Also, its classes are small – 12 students – and there are two teachers, so Marco will be forced by the very structure of the school to interact with a small number of kids on a daily basis.
While we think that Marco’s issue is merely a developmental delay, we also blame his preschool for failing to help. He went to Bing Nursery School, one of the most renowned preschools in America because of its connection to Stanford University. The problem with Bing for kids like Marco is that its classes have 36 students each. Even though each class has six very skilled teachers to create a 6:1 student:teacher ratio, the large numbers don’t force each kid to interact with any particular kid or teacher on a daily basis. Thus, kids like Marco can get lost at Bing. I call it the UC Berkeley of preschools – huge, with lots of opportunities for kids who know how to take advantage of them. In two years there, Marco never had much of a clue.
What how do I think about this “redshirt or not” question now, given my own personal experience? I still very much believe that kids who are developmentally ready to go to kindergarten should go, but I’m now more sympathetic than before to the argument that the way kindergarten is today excludes more kids than it used to. It’s sad that so many kids are destined to be unhappy in their first year of school because it’s so rigidly academic, and therefore so inappropriate developmentally for a large proportion of five-year-olds.
In my original article on redshirting I referred to a paper by Dean Deborah Stipek of the Stanford University School of Education, where she makes a plea for schools to be ready for the children they admit, rather than asking parents to prepare their five-year-olds for a certain level of “kindergarten readiness.”
I understand even more than before what Stipek meant when she wrote this.