We get this question all the time. Parents with children just reaching school-age want to know the potential benefits and/or drawbacks of the different options. We've operated an elementary school for over fifty years and have experience with pre-kindergarten programs - ours and others. And, because we are a school that serves children through twelfth grade, we also see the longer term affects of this decision.
As in many other areas of life, things change. For a period of time, parents wanted their children to start in kindergarten as soon as possible. It wasn't unusual for children to be four years old entering class in the fall. The trend was to get them started and have their academic schedule pushed ahead.
More recently, there is a "red-shirting" trend with parents delaying their entrance into kindergarten until they are six years old. Their desire is to make sure their children are ready and perhaps to give them a bit of a competitive edge compared to their five-year-old peers. These parents aren't thinking so much about kindergarten as they are the middle and high-school years.
States Standardizing at Five Years of Age
From the states' perspective, they are working to standardize and have been adjusting the entrance age so that students have turned five before or soon after starting kindergarten. At the same time, most states have exceptions that parents can apply for - to either accelerate or delay their child's start.
Based on our experience, here are a few things that we've observed.
Starting Early: Many children are ready for the academic work of kindergarten when they are four years old, particularly if they have been attending a pre-kindergarten program that stresses academics. We've seen four-year-old students reading - not just words but sentences. These parents are concerned that their child will become bored in kindergarten and want them to be challenged. We would most always recommend that parents not start their child early. First, much of the learning that occurs in elementary grades is related to behavior and social skills. Even though a child is ready academically, they might be in over their heads in the social environment. The other reason has to do with the later grades and levels of maturity that are important for middle and high school. We've often seen students that began early paying a price later on in seventh or ninth grade. If you start your child early, you need to be willing to reevaluate each year and have your child repeat - potentially for social and emotional maturity, and that's a hard decision to make.
Starting Late: Given our advice above, it might seem that the preferred option would be to delay their start and follow the "red-shirt" trend. We would recommend against this, as well - unless, of course, there were other significant issues and a reason for doing this, other than just wanting them a year older than their peers. The studies that have been done on a range of students haven't shown an academic benefit for the older students. In some cases, in the later years of high school, their age has been an obstacle, rather than a benefit. In some ways, these students feel that they are beyond the need for school and relax their academic pursuits. The only area that resulted in a measurable benefit to the older students was related to athletics. Apparently the extra year of growth and development did given them a slight edge compared to the group of students a year younger. We don't believe this is an adequate justification for the change and the other potential complications the age difference might bring.
Stay the Course: You might guess that starting your child in kindergarten at five years old is our recommended approach. Though all children are different, there is a benefit to schools and the students for the children to be within an academic and developmental maturity band and match more closely their peers. Schools will typically have a range of academic options within each grade that can accommodate the students that are a bit ahead or behind academically.
Examine Options Carefully: We have seen students that have benefited from starting early and starting late, so we certainly aren't saying that those are not viable options. We would recommend parents that are considering the early/late options for their child have careful discussions with school representatives. Would would also recommend testing for your child to determine if there are behavioral or learning differences that would need attention, in addition to the differences that an early or late start in kindergarten would produce.
Thank you for reading - we hope this was helpful to you as you consider what is best for your child.
More Resources for Your Kindergarten School Decision