Devi Knaster knows her ABCs, can count to 10, and is no longer too shy to speak to adults or play with other children. The California 5-year-old spent an extra year in preschool brushing up those skills.
Now she's ready, her mother says, for the rigors of kindergarten.
"She probably would have been fine had we forced her into kindergarten early," said Devi's mother, Barbara Knaster, a computer consultant from Campbell, Calif. "Now I know she's really ready. She's much more self-confident."
This fall, thousands of children 4 1/2 or 5 years old will sit out a year of kindergarten -- delayed by new state laws deeming them too young or by parents who take the option of holding their children out until they feel they've matured.
All states provide kindergarten, and even pay for a half day of it, but it's mandatory only in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
Borrowing the sports term for athletes held off the team, about 9 percent of the roughly 4 million eligible children each year are "redshirted" from kindergarten.
As kindergarten gets increasingly academic, with children being encouraged to read sooner and better, the debate over redshirting children -- and its lasting effect on their school careers -- intensifies.
"Parents really struggle over that," said Heidi Inouye-Steiner, president of the California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools, Inc. "What if the kids are ready and you hold them back? What if you send them and they're not ready?"
No one agrees on when children should start kindergarten, a German program of developmental play, song and stories brought here in 1856. It has become the gateway to first grade.
It was once standard practice to enroll new kindergartners in September as long as they were going to be 5 by December or January. Even if they could count, they might not be able to sit still or follow directions.
But in a quest for a more-sophisticated pool of children, most states now say children must be 5 by September or October, leaving the 4-year-olds to wait another year. Or local officials simply encourage individual parents to wait until the next year.
Denise Weis, a Mountain Home, Idaho, kindergarten teacher, said she had to recommend 16 of her students held back for another year of kindergarten last spring because they hadn't learned their letters or couldn't count to 20.
"They started below ground zero," she said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm teaching two or three grades."
Now educators armed with new research say anxious lawmakers and parents should be careful: Sometimes children will do better if they get immediate help from a school instead of sitting out.
"Some people talk about giving children the gift of time," said Dan Miller, a Texas Woman's University school psychology professor who sells preschool and kindergarten screening materials to schools. "If an at-risk child stays at home (rather than going to a good preschool) and comes to you a year later, he or she may be even more at risk."
Educators are also worried about the children who might miss kindergarten altogether, because the next year they've reached the state-mandated age for starting first grade instead.
Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says holding children out only fuels the move toward requiring more academic skills of developing children: "It adds to the momentum of expecting them to do work more acceptable for older children."
Researchers argue there's just not enough information to determine which way is better.
"Redshirting for kindergarten or retention in the early grades should not be widely promoted or endorsed until we know more," said University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Elizabeth Graue, who helped study 8,500 Wisconsin youngsters.
The results appear mixed. The study found that students held out a year had as much self-esteem as other children but had more behavior problems. Redshirted children were less likely to need special education services or other extra help. Their grades were about the same as children who were not held out.
Holding kindergartners out -- even if they need it -- can be unpopular with parents.
"There's a real hue and a cry by parents who say that means another year of expensive day care," said Kathleen Clow, a Marin County, Calif., parent who is sending her 5-year-old, Reyna, to kindergarten this fall. "They're not really thinking, is my child really ready?"
Experts worry that without enough free or low-cost preschools, delaying kindergarten just sends poor children back home. And boys -- who are more likely to sit out kindergarten -- may stay out for the wrong reasons.
"In some parts of the country, some parents want their children to be bigger and stronger in athletics," Miller said. "It's not motivated by what's in the best interest of the child."
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