Kindergarten Dilemma: Held Back or Youngest in the Class?


As I limp toward the finish line of summer vacation, I start to cycle through thoughts of my kids being the youngest in their respective classes.  And wonder what, if anything, I should do about it.

I have three kids – boy, girl and boy.  I feel like I’ve been churning on this topic for years now, and I feel this way because I actually have been churning on this topic for years.

We just moved from the US to Canada and the age cutoff for the start of school is very different, which has forced me to consider AGAIN something that I didn’t think I would have to worry about. The cutoff in Chicago for the public school system (CPS) is September 1.  This made my eldest child, a July baby boy, a candidate for youngest in the class.  He started kindergarten last fall, indeed, as one of the younger kids in his class.

My husband and I, a few years ago, contemplated holding him back solely based on his age. But a number of factors changed our mind, primarily his social and emotional development.  That, and we were told that whenever we enrolled him in CPS they would put him in the age-appropriate grade regardless, so without sending him to private school, there was no way around him being the youngest. Fortunately, he had a number of July boys in the class with him so in the end it all worked out fine.

In the middle of this year, we moved to Toronto where the cutoff is December 31st. He is now in the middle of the pack, age-wise.  His younger sister has a January birthday so she hasn’t been terribly affected in either city.

My youngest son is a December baby, and he’s actually still somewhat of a baby (18 months), so I’m a tad crazy for even worrying about this right now.  But I can’t help but wrestle with the topic and every once in a while bring it up with my mom friends for their opinion.  His mid-December birthday just about guarantees that he will be the youngest in his class when the time comes, and there are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about whether he should be held back a year.

Now as a side note, in the US you are legally required to enroll your child in school in their kindergarten year, while preschool or pre-k is optional.  In Canada, you are not legally required to send your child to school until Grade 1, so junior and senior kindergarten are optional.

However, my concern isn’t how old they are when they start school.  My concern is more around their ability to thrive in an environment where there is a significant age disparity of which they have the disadvantage.  Which of course, no matter when the cutoff is, there will always be a youngest and an oldest child.

So the question becomes, what do you do?   What measures, if any, do you take to keep your child from being the youngest?  Should you take any action at all?  Or should you just trust the system?

Well, the answer isn’t the same for everyone and depends on a number of factors. Factors such as gender, individual personality and maturity all play a role.  Studies show that the brain develops faster in girls, and at a young age their performance in school tends to be better than that of boys.

Where a child falls in their family, whether they are the oldest, middle, youngest or only child can matter.  I wrote a post about birth order and its impact on our personalities, too much to delve into here, but a first born child with a Type-A personality, even if they are the youngest in the class may not have an issue adapting to their classroom setting, whereas a third born child may.  Other considerations are the child’s individual personality and maturity.  You know your child best, how are they developmentally in relation to their peers?

I love reading Malcolm Gladwell books and one of them (Outliers), looks at professional hockey players and their birthdays.  A disproportionate number of elite athletes in that profession have birthdays in January, February and March.  Is this a coincidence with the Canadian public school system and cutoff dates, or a direct correlation?  Gladwell says it’s a positive correlation.  Children born early in the calendar year are older than their classmates and physically larger (generally) than their younger peers. This means they tend to get selected for the elite teams, get more ice time and that increased exposure to the sport (along with a TON of hard work) gets them to the NHL, at a disproportionate rate to their classmates born later in the year.

Now, I have no delusions that my kids are NHL material since neither of their parents can ice skate (poor kids).  But take that example and consider that if my daughter and my youngest son were born in the same year, keeping their birth dates the same (January 6th and December 13th) she would have 25% more life experience than he would.  25% more time (nearly a full year) to develop her social skills, cognitive abilities and fine motor skills. All of the tools that are necessary to set a child up for success in future grades.

Fortunately, my youngest is only 18 months old so I still have plenty of time to stew about this and watch as his personality emerges.  But I really don’t know what the right answer is and I don’t know what we will do.

What did you do with your kids?  Would you do anything differently if given the chance?  What WILL you do with your kids?  Do you have thoughts on it?



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