Are the Oldest Kids in the Class More Advantaged?

Sep 22, 2017

The couch in my family therapy practice is full of anxious parents well before the next school year begins. The stories are all different. The anxieties are much the same. Parents hunting for preschools are consumed with finding the “right” school—trying to guess the trajectory to the “right” college. And parents touring endless college campuses hoping to help their child with academic admission or sports team recruiting brings about questions as to whether they made the “right” decision to enter their child into kindergarten when they did.

Timing their child’s entry into kindergarten so they have the best academic chances is often at the root of their parental anxiety. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that being among the oldest kids in the class is an advantage, though other professionals question the advantage beyond the first couple of years of traditional schooling.

These conflicting recommendations, along with the well-meaning opinions from grandparents and friends, provide angst for parents who worry about their child’s success in school. Many parents agonize over not knowing how their early decisions will ultimately impact their children; One parent said, “I wish I had a crystal ball assuring me that we are making the right decision about my child’s schooling.”

Rather than offering a crystal ball, I offer three helpful things to consider when making back to school decisions.

Consider Their Maturity Level

Beginning kindergarten, not so long ago, was a natural progression as a child approached the age of 5. As admission recommendations have moved birthdate requirements earlier in the year, parents are now considering whether or not to enroll their child into kindergarten even when their child meets the State’s cutoff dates. Private schools have more conservative birthdate requirements and the public schools are following suit. These ever-changing enrollment birthdate requirements often cause concern and frustration for all parents in all socioeconomic categories.

The typical suggestions have been that girls should begin kindergarten at age 5 to 5 ½ and boys at age 5 ½ to 6. However, some of the kids who are “calendar” ready may not be emotionally or academically ready to begin school. Parents struggle with a multitude of variables when making this decision. It is helpful to consult with school professionals, preschool teachers, daycare providers and mental health professionals if families are concerned.

Kindergarten, in the “old days,” was a half day experience away from mom and dad, naptime and art time. We learned to play with others, use scissors, be polite, enjoy the outdoors, write our name and have a snack. It was glorious. Today, kindergarten is a mix between academic readiness, reading, writing, arithmetic and learning how to get along with others. Teachers and parents have had a lot of adjustments with the new rigor in kindergarten

If you’re most concerned about your child’s academic abilities in beginning kindergarten, it would be wise to consult with the school your child will be attending and with your preschool or childcare provider. This is especially helpful if your child is in the summer “birthday bubble.”

Consider How Skipping/Repeating Grades Could Affect Them

Post-kindergarten, many parents have thoughts about how their child is growing academically, physically and emotionally. Some parents think about this as a natural time to hold their child back, repeating kindergarten. For those who are concerned that their child is not adjusting well, it is an excellent time to consult with school faculty and outside professionals.

One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is they assume holding their child back will help with emotional and educational difficulties that emerged in kindergarten. Early intervention is crucial and needs outside professional input rather than just a mere repeating of an academic grade.

Skipping grades is an alternative discussion. Questions that arise should include:

  • Is my child both academically and emotionally ready for the grade beyond?
  • How will my child handle their physical development in the midst of their academic excellence?
  • Are they emotionally ready to manage the nuances of middle school or high school as a younger student?

Skipping grades is easier at the elementary level and harder to negotiate when involvement in sports requires birth dates and academic years which provides some discrepancy for the student.

Dilemmas Around Academic and Athletic “Redshirting”

“Redshirting” is a term that was coined in athletics where a student athlete would sit out a year in order to develop skills to make them more competitive in the athletic arena. This term has emerged in the academic world as well. Parents look at some of the scholarship opportunities that their older and taller student athlete might receive at the college level.

Whether or not this is a need or a desire for the family and student, I suggest that parents look at the emotional and academic abilities of the student before making the decision. Although athletic “redshirting” is enticing, parents should weigh the actual odds of their child’s athletic recruitment with what they may sacrifice in the meantime—older and taller than their peers, working with younger students, earlier and more awkward puberty than their classmates, or academically unchallenged in the classroom.

Some families manage the “redshirting” advantages by way of planning a “Gap Year” which falls between a student’s high school senior year and their freshman year in college. Gap Years can be well used for international travel and athletics or work experiences that allow a student or student athlete to mature emotionally and physically.

All of this said, the goal is your child’s well-being. Each child is different whether it is the preschool child who likes art over the alphabet or the kindergartner who is quiet or gregarious. Each child offers something unique and wonderful and it is up to their parents to help guide them in their growth. It’s not really about having a crystal ball for success and prowess. It’s most about being aware of your child’s individual growth, strengths, weaknesses and interests that should take precedence over a parent’s personal needs. Rely on your village of educators, professionals, friends and therapists to help guide you. Sadly, there is no “crystal ball,” rather, there is your child with needs and desires. It’s up to you, as the parent, to listen.