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Amos Hatch

Redshirting, a term often associated with college football, is on the lips of many parents of Chattanooga preschoolers this summer.

In college, the term means asking freshman football recruits to mark time for a year to preserve their eligibility. In preschool, it means delaying for one year a child's entry into kindergarten in hopes that being one of the older kids in class, instead of one of the youngest, will give them social and academic advantages.

Amos Hatch, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has done research on the topic of kindergarten "redshirting," which is a growing trend in many middle-class communities. Hatch encourages parents to make such decisions based on their child's maturity level, not just their chronological age.

With school starting in about a month, many Chattanooga parents are facing just such a decision. Below is an interview with Hatch (edited for brevity).

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Q: Is there any evidence that this "redshirting" trend is accelerating?

Hatch: Although up-to-date numbers are difficult to come by, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that redshirting has accelerated over the past several years. Parents know that school expectations, including those in kindergarten, have become more rigorous, especially with the highly publicized implementation of the Common Core standards and associated testing regimes. They know that the original notion of kindergarten as a "children's garden" is now a relic; and they have become convinced that being among the youngest in the class may put their kindergartner at risk for struggling in school and perhaps being held back later.

Q: Is this a middle- to upper-middle-class phenomenon?

Hatch: Yes, families with means and savvy about how to work the system are much more likely to redshirt their kids than those without resources or knowledge of options. Opting to delay kindergarten entry means taking care of an extra year of in- or out-of-home care for the child.

Q: Are there any long-term studies comparing the academic success of redshirted children vs. those who follow a more traditional path?

Hatch: There are some studies, but the results are mixed. Lots of older studies showed clear disadvantages for children with "summer birthdays," but more recent work questions those findings. Some recent studies suggest that children with identified developmental delays benefit from waiting a year to enter formal schooling, but I don't know of rigorous studies that have looked at the impact of voluntary redshirting.

Q: Is positioning children for success in school athletics part of the calculus for some parents?

Hatch: It's hard to know what parents who dream of their children becoming elite athletes are thinking. For sure, some of these parents intentionally hold their kids back a grade in upper elementary or middle school when they see an advantage for their child's athletic future; but the extent to which this is being expressed in kindergarten redshirting is hard to know.

Q: Are there any unintended consequences that parents should consider?

Hatch: Unintended consequences that should be considered include: the extra expense of having your child under your roof for an additional year; the possibility that your child will reach puberty ahead of his or her classmates, making adjusting to these difficult life changes extra hard; the issues associated with getting a driver's license ahead of class peers; and for girls especially, issues that will likely arise when it's time to start dating.

Q: Is this part of a bigger trend toward delayed adulthood?

Hatch: It's complicated because even though more young people are staying with their parents for longer periods of time and therefor avoiding/delaying some adult responsibilities, kids are growing up faster than ever in a lot of ways. Exposure to the media, the changing values in society and the blurred lines between adult and child knowledge mean that children are expected to handle lots of difficult "adult" stuff they were protected from in the past. While redshirted kids will be at home for an extra year, beyond that, I am not sure that there is much of a connection.

Q: What is the most important question parents considering this option should ask themselves?

Hatch: The positive I see in redshirting kids entering kindergarten is if they are close to the age cutoff and are developing at a slower pace than their peers. Some children naturally mature at a slower rate and will benefit from the gift of time, allowing them to develop cognitively, socially and emotionally to a place where they can feel comfortable and be successful in today's heavily academic kindergarten.

Q: What is the most important "takeaway" from your research?

Hatch: Schools systems are so obsessed with teaching standards and testing for accountability that kindergarten teachers no longer have the autonomy to teach in ways they know make sense for their young students. Teachers have been forced to teach a shoved-down, skill-driven curriculum and to do so in ways that ignore the variability in how young children learn and develop. Given this environment, it makes sense for some children to delay entry or face a school career during which they are made to feel like failures and constantly trying to catch up.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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