Q: My son, Ezra, just entered kindergarten and is one of the youngest in his class. He's really unhappy, so I want to hold him back a year. My husband says he'll get used to it and his teacher isn't concerned, but two friends who held their sons back agree with me. Is there research about this?
A: The research on holding back a "young 5" is mixed. You can find studies to support it. Researchers Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey found that the youngest members of kindergarten classes scored 4 to 12 percentiles lower than the oldest members in grade four, and 2 to 9 percentiles lower in grade eight. Other research shows that any academic benefits of starting a child later often disappear after middle school.
Recent research by professors Kevin Kniffin and Andrew Hanks looked at persons who received doctorates and found that holding kids back has little influence on those who earn a Ph.D. and may have negative influence on post-graduate salary.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that depending on the region, approximately 6 percent of 5-year-olds eligible for kindergarten are held back each year. (The practice is often called "redshirting," a reference to college coaches who bench a freshman for a season, hoping that an extra year of practice yields a better athlete.)
Alia Wong covers education for The Atlantic. She reviewed several studies and concludes, "It's far from clear whether relative age has much to bear on a child's future success. And absent a consensus, it may be best to hold off on redshirting, if only in the interest of playing it safe." (Find her report at theatlantic.com.)
Every teacher can tell you of a 5-year-old who didn't demonstrate kindergarten readiness and benefited from "the gift of time." And that's really the question: Is Ezra unhappy because kindergarten is a new experience and he hasn't yet made the transition? Or is he unhappy because he's developmentally unprepared and struggling?
"Parents will do whatever they believe will help their children compete in school and life. But they need to remember that not all children progress in the same way and at the same rate or benefit similarly from the same opportunity," says literacy researcher Michael Milone.
"My advice," he continues, "is to be patient, observant and supportive. Don't hover, but try to find out why he is unhappy and address these concerns with his teacher and others at school and listen to what they say."
Meg Meeker, pediatrician and author of "Strong Mothers, Strong Sons" (Ballantine Books, 2014), advises against holding back a 5-year-old who doesn't need it. She says it "can grow into a devastating parenting philosophy," sending a message that high achievement is the only thing that matters.
The transition to kindergarten, says Milone, "is often stressful simply because it is a child's first experience with a perceived major life change.
"Helping Ezra make a successful transition can strengthen his ability to adapt to new situations -- an ability that will be incredibly important to his future."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)