Saturday, 18 August 2012

Red Flagging - Ummm... I mean Shirting... PART 1

This post is the first in a series on the phenomenon of Redshirting.

So... redshirting has been in the media a lot lately. This is not a new phenomenon, but, currently it does seem to be getting fairly extreme. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, redshirting refers to the practice of parents or a school placing children in kindergarten the year AFTER they meet the age requirement. So, that means if the regulation for entry to kindergarten is that the child must be at least 5 years old by September, and a child meets that criteria, parents wait until the following year to place their child kindergarten. So, the child will in fact be 6 years old by that cutoff, rather than 5. There are many reasons parents delay entry to kindergarten: frequent reasons cited are a lack of maturity; poor "kindergarten readiness" (I put that in quotes, because parents and teachers often have very different ideas of readiness...); and the parents desire to give their child an edge in skills and leadership abilities. 60 minutes recently did a segment on this phenomenon and this final reason; being an oldest child giving an advantage; was the main focus of that segment.

However, a major factor in whether a parent delays entry for their child is birth month. Another major factor is gender. Children, specifically boys, born in the months immediately preceeding a cutoff are most likely to be redshirted, and the most typical reason is for a deficiency; perceived lack of readiness. Notably, this redshirting is independent of when the cutoff actually occurs, a different, earlier cutoff does not reduce the occurance of these delayed entrances. So, in my province, the cutoff is March 1; children as young as 4.5 enter kindergarten here, whereas in other provinces the cutoff is January 1 and yet other provinces have a cutoff of September 1. Where the cutoff is March, the targetted group is born November and later, Where the cutoff is January, the targetted group is August and later, and where it is September the greatest retainees are born May and later... The greatest cluster of kids who wait to enter is in the month just preceeding the cutoff.

However, currently, I am noticing a shift "on the ground." I find often that the media discusses a "trend" and it appears to simply be a means to stir controversy. In the day to day life of "the average person" (okay, me) this "trend" may or may not exist at all. But, this particular phenomenon does seem to be on the rise - even in my little life... I have had conversations with mothers whose children would be among the oldest in their cohort who STILL decided to redshirt their child - when their child actually displays many markers of readiness. Case in point, I spoke to a mother whose child was born in JUNE (considering that March 1 is our cutoff, this child is in the oldest quartile...). Her child is currently 5 years old, can read, has good social skills, is physically capable and competent, has excellent communication skills... and so on. She is even tall for her age. Her mom has decided to place her in kindergarten next year so that she will be even farther ahead of her peers, and have great "leadership skills." At the end of kindergarten, she will be turning 7, when the oldest of the rest of her "entered on time" classmates will be turning 6.

Malcolm Gladwell's discussion regarding the hockey roster in Outliers is the oft cited rationale behind redshirting for advantageous reasons (delaying entry of a normally developing child to provide an edge as opposed to holding a child back because that child is perceived as lacking in some area). In his book, he discusses how in all sports that have a cutoff, the older kids do better, then segues into discussing how the same kind of cutoff is impacting our schoolchildren. Bascially, in hockey, it works something like this: children born just after the cutoff are bigger, more mature and more physically capable in the early years, and so are most likely to be selected for the better team in the following year. Look through any roster of hockey players, and you find that this early advantage does follow through all the way through a hockey players career. The vast majority of hockey players are born just after the cutoff, and ones who are born just before the cutoff often have some sort of exceptional history... When he moves the discourse to talk about kindergarten entry, he discusses the advantages that an older child receives in kindergarten. Older children have an edge in kindergarten, typically, because they are better able to carry a conversation, have grown out of a lot of the extreme antsy pantsy-ness that plagues preschoolers, and generally are viewed as more intelligent. Youngest children, on the other hand, tend to be biased against. Supporting Malcolm Gladwells assumptions is a 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Economics regarding the frequency of misdiagnosis in schoolchildren who are the youngest in their classes.

Using a sample of nearly 12,000 children, Elder examined the difference in ADHD diagnosis and medication rates between the youngest and oldest children in a grade. The data is from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort, which is funded by the National Center for Education Statistics.

According to Elder's study, the youngest kindergartners were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in the same grade. Similarly, when that group of classmates reached the fifth and eighth grades, the youngest were more than twice as likely to be prescribed stimulants.

Overall, the study found that about 20 percent -- or 900,000 -- of the 4.5 million children currently identified as having ADHD likely have been misdiagnosed.

The researchers go on to say:

The results -- both from individual states and when compared across states -- were definitive. For instance, in Michigan -- where the kindergarten cutoff date is Dec. 1 -- students born Dec. 1 had much higher rates of ADHD than children born Dec. 2. (The students born Dec. 1 were the youngest in their grade; the students born Dec. 2 enrolled a year later and were the oldest in their grade.)

Thus, even though the students were a single day apart in age, they were assessed differently simply because they were compared against classmates of a different age set, Elder said.

In another example, August-born kindergartners in Illinois were much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than Michigan kindergartners born in August of the same year as their Illinois counterparts. That's because Illinois' kindergarten cutoff date is Sept. 1, meaning those August-born children were the youngest in their grade, whereas the Michigan students were not.

The article then discusses the teacher's instrumental role in an ADHD diagnosis, that their perceptions of the child's behaviour is very much taken into account when an expert is in the process of providing a diagnosis. The fact that date of birth plays such a key role strongly implies a bias against younger children, which then influences their school experience.

The conversation with the "extreme redshirter" in particular got me thinking. What is the scientific basis for redshirting? Is it a valid way to offer an advantage? Are there reprocussions that have not been considered? Could there be benefits to being the youngest? Detriments to being the oldest? What do the long term studies say? And, does the comparison with hockey even hold water? And, finally, is redshirting the best (or even a good) answer to the problems it tries to address?

Redshirting is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was so common in the mid 90s that the cutoff in many US states was actually moved back from December 31 to September 1 along with the advent of the "No Child Gets Left Behind" policy introduced in 2001. States like California that did not change the cutoff are doing it now.

The 1970s also saw a bout of redshirting... so there actually is a lot of research out there on the phenomenon. I have been pouring through that to find the pros and cons of being a young child, vs. being an older child, vs. being redshirted, vs. being held back in the early grades.... In the next few posts, I will discuss the short term and long term effects of all these situations.

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