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Delaying kindergarten may bring mental health benefits for kids

Children in the transitional kindergarten (TK) program play during recess at the Martha Escutia Primary Center. TK was created by a new law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
FILE: A new study suggests that delaying kindergarten can have benefits for children, particularly if they come from affluent families.

It’s that time of year when parents of prospective kindergarteners are touring schools and swimming in applications, hoping their child gets into the right school.

The process grew complicated back in 2010 when the California legislature changed the age for getting into kindergarten to 5 by Sept. 1. Parents were left wondering if their child was old enough for kindergarten.

Now new research suggests that waiting until the child is a little older might lead to mental health benefits as the students advances through the grades.

According to Thomas Dee of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, starting kindergarten at age 7 leads to children who are better able to focus and control their emotions. “Delaying kindergarten virtually eliminates the probability that a child is at risk of ADHD,” he said.

Dee, and his co-author, Hans Henrik Sievertsen of the Danish National Centre for Social Research, studied longitudinal data gathered on Danish children 7 and 11.

School in that Scandinavian country starts at age 7. Until then, as KPCC reported, almost all children are enrolled in the country’s universal preschool program that is largely play-based.

The researchers found the improved emotional self-regulation displayed by the children at age 7 were still present at age 11. They found that when children were older in kindergarten, they were more focused and less inattentive — clearly necessary ingredients to doing well in school. It’s what Dee calls “self-regulation benefits.”

Waiting until children are older to start school, known as "redshirting," is not a new concept. Dee points out there is little evidence that delaying the start of school improves educational and economic outcomes. However, his study highlights important mental health benefits that can ultimately impact school performance.

Yet these benefits may not apply to all children.

“We found that the gains for delaying kindergarten tended to be concentrated among more affluent kids,” Dee said. Why? “Kids who come from more affluence are more likely to be in high-quality PreK, maybe ones that stress a more play-based curriculum.”

His report cited literature in developmental psychology that “emphasizes the importance of pretend play in the development of children’s emotional and intellectual self-regulation.”

Dee said there is no evidence that children who attend play-based preschools are behind in academics when they start kindergarten. “The reading, writing and other academic skills are more easily learned when a child is able to better self-regulate, even if that happens at an older age,” he said. Furthermore, Dee said, “at that age, play is learning — it's not an either or."

California has moved in a different direction with the introduction of transitional kindergarten, a more structured and academic school year program that precedes kindergarten. The state recently expanded eligibility for its newest grade.

For children from lower socio-economic households, Dee said quality early learning or even early kindergarten is important, even if the program is more academic than play-based.

“If kids don’t have access to resources [and] may be in more developmentally impoverished environments, for them getting into kindergarten relatively early may not be so bad, because it’s an improvement upon what they would otherwise be doing,” he said.

So should parents consider waiting until their child is older to start them in kindergarten?

In California, a child must be in school at age 6, so waiting until 7 would only be possible if parents can find — and afford — a private school that offers play-based kindergarten. 

For its part, the state Department of Education does not promote children repeating kindergarten for a second year as some parents request. According to the CDE website, “current literature reveals that retention may have a negative effect on student achievement, school attendance, attitude toward school, and student dropout rates.”

Stanford's Dee also cautions parents not to make decisions based just on the self-regulation benefits he found. Instead, he said, ask these questions: “What do I know about my child? What do I know about the character and curriculum of the kindergarten they would attend?”

For parents whose child might be in a more academic preschool or transitional kindergarten class, Dee suggests talking with the teacher or principal to point out what the “extensive body of research seems to indicate about the role of play.”

Getting more time for imaginative and block play in transitional kindergarten may be a tough sell, he acknowledges. “I think teachers and principals are in a difficult bind here because there is this pressure to improve test scores ... and many school leaders have been pushing the test-based focus down into their earlier grades. But that’s not actually what might help kids really unlock their potential as they age.”