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Starting Kindergarten Late:
How Does It Affect School Performance?

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Does entering kindergarten late help some children do better in school? The answer isn't as simple as it sounds! Opinions -- and the results of several recent surveys -- are divided on that question.

One child in seven in the United States either entered kindergarten late or was required to repeat kindergarten, according to data from the 1993 and 1995 National Household Education Surveys. Since the 1970s, another report shows, the proportion of children who have delayed entering kindergarten has doubled, mainly because parents want to give them a competitive and social advantage.

How does entering kindergarten late or repeating the grade affect children's school performance? The 1993 and 1995 surveys found notable differences between the later school performance of students who were held out of kindergarten and students who repeated kindergarten.

  • The performance of first- and second-graders who were held out of kindergarten was better than that of first- and second-graders who entered kindergarten at the prescribed age.
  • On the other hand, children who had to repeat kindergarten were doing worse than other first- and second-graders.

Those are highlights from a statistical analysis report, titled "The Elementary School Performance and Adjustment of Children Who Enter Kindergarten Late or Repeat Kindergarten: Findings from National Surveys," published in November 1997 by the National Center for Education Statistics.

MOST DRAMATIC DIFFERENCES

Following are the areas in which the report shows students with delayed kindergarten entry differed most dramatically from students who entered on time:

  • First- and second-grade students in 1993 who had been kept out of kindergarten until they were older were less likely than other students to draw negative feedback from teachers about their academic performance or conduct in class.
  • In 1995 the delayed entry students were less like likely than students who started kindergarten on time to have repeated first or second grade.
  • First- and second-graders who were retained in kindergarten had more school performance problems than children who didn't repeat.
  • First- and second-graders in 1993 who had repeated kindergarten were more likely than children who had not repeated to receive negative feedback from their teachers.

BACKGROUND FACTORS HAVE IMPACT

In the 1995 survey, controlling for demographic, socioeconomic, and development factors basically eliminated the differences between students who entered kindergarten late and other first- and second-graders. On the other hand, when those factors were taken into account in the 1993 survey, the differences in student school performance were reduced but remained significant.

No evidence was found in the surveys that children who may have been at heightened risk of having difficulties in school benefited from, or were hurt by, delayed kindergarten entry more than other children. Neither starting kindergarten late nor retention in kindergarten were shown to relate significantly to first- and second-grade school performance or adjustment.

THE CONS OF DELAYED KINDERGARTEN

Not every study seems to indicate that delaying a child's entry into kindergarten is beneficial. A study published in Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics journal, might support educators who oppose delaying children's entry into kindergarten. Students who are older because they started school late tend to have more behavioral difficulties in adolescence than students who are the average age for the grade, according to research done at the University of Rochester.

"Parents want to keep kids out to give them a leg up on tests," said Dr. Robert S. Byrd, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester [N.Y.] School of Medicine. "But holding children out of school may not give them any advantage, and may cause problems."

The trend toward delayed entry into kindergarten, along with an increase in the number of special education students who take more time to complete high school and of immigrant students who may need more time to catch up on work, has created an aging school population in the United States. According to an October 1997 article in Education Week, the percentage of 12th graders in U.S. public schools who are 19, 20, or 21 has nearly doubled, from 4 percent in 1984 to 7 percent in 1994.

For the study published in Pediatrics, staff at Rochester General Hospital studied interviews with parents of more than 9,000 children from 7 to 17 years old, gathered in 1988 for the federal National Health Interview Survey.

In that survey, 26 percent of children were older than their peers were. About half had been retained a year, and the other half had been delayed in starting school by their parents or by a school's cutoff date for entry. Students who started school later had more behavioral problems than students of average age, especially when they hit adolescence, the study showed. According to this research, at 17, 16 percent of students who started kindergarten later demonstrated extremely inappropriate conduct, while 7 percent of the average-age students exhibited similar inappropriate behavior.

A FEW CAVEATS

Some education groups have said the possibility that older students may have more behavioral problems does not make it advisable to promote children who are not academically ready for the next grade. Other experts have criticized the Rochester hospital study for using data that was years old and possibly not applicable at this time.

Complicating the issue of kindergarten readiness is the fact that parents and teachers or school administrators may view readiness very differently. An article titled "How Should Children Be Prepared For Kindergarten?" from the Educational Resource Network on the Web recognizes that much of the diversity among 5-year-olds is due to "developmental differences, the varying rates at which individuals mature." Yet some of the diversity, the article asserts, may be based on different ways parents prepare, or don't prepare, their children for kindergarten.

The article is based on information from a survey by Kimberly Harris and Shelly Knudsen Lindauer. Harris and Lindauer sought to learn what parents and teachers believe about kindergarten readiness. They surveyed two-parent families from diverse economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds in urban and rural areas.

"When asked what parents could do to better prepare their children," the article states, "teachers most frequently mentioned the areas of receptive language, cognitive-attention/problem-solving, and small muscle coordination." Parents, however, tended to emphasize helping children with pre-reading, math, and social skills. According to Harris and Lindauer, "clarifying goals for parents is essential," and communication between home and school about expectations for children entering kindergarten will help those children succeed in school.

RELATED RESOURCES

  • "Parent and Teacher Priorities for Kindergarten Preparation," Child Study Journal, Volume 18, Number 2, p. 61.
  • Young Children. (November 1990): 21-23. The position statement on school readiness from The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

RELATED SITES

The Elementary School Performance and Adjustment of Children Who Enter Kindergarten Late or Repeat Kindergarten: Findings from National Surveys
This National Center for Education Statistics report analyzes the elementary school performance of children whose entry into kindergarten is delayed or who repeat kindergarten.

Readiness: Children and Schools
An ERIC Digest report by Lilian G. Katz focuses on general readiness for school, including social readiness as well as intellectual readiness.

Trouble Ahead for Older Students, Study Finds
An Education Week article looks at a study published in the journal of the American academy of Pediatrics that could support educators who oppose holding children out of kindergarten an extra year.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 02/02/1998
Last updated 05/25/2009

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