The Pros and Cons of ‘Holding Out’

March 15, 2000

“Five-year-old boys with summer birthdays are rarely ready for kindergarten. They should spend another year at home or in nursery school.”

You often hear that statement. But the suggestion is unsubstantiated by research, according to UW–Madison Education Professor Elizabeth Graue and Lehigh University’s James DiPerna.

Their recent study challenges conventional wisdom about the value of redshirting and early retention. In fact, some children who are “held out” miss receiving needed attention in areas of learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and emotional disabilities. Until we know more, Graue says, redshirting and early retention should not be widely promoted or endorsed.

Graue and DiPerna collected data from a representative, stratified, random sample of the 367 Wisconsin school districts with elementary schools. The stratification characteristic was socioeconomic status represented by the proportion of students eligible for the federal free-and-reduced lunch program. Graue and DiPerna examined the school records of more than 8,500 Wisconsin students in 47 districts to depict patterns of school entry, promotion, subsequent special services and student achievement.

Holding children out, also called academic redshirting, is a popular idea. The name comes from the term used in athletics. High school and college athletes are redshirted when their participation in sports is delayed to make them more competitive by providing an additional year of growth and maturation. Kindergartners are redshirted when parents delay entry because of concerns about readiness for school. Approximately 7 percent of kindergartners in the Wisconsin sample were redshirted and 3 percent retained K through 3 in 1995.

The majority of redshirts are boys with summer birthdays (in states with fall kindergarten cutoffs). Retainees (students who are asked to repeat a grade) follow this pattern with the addition that children of color and of poverty are overrepresented. These proportions and patterns hold true in nationally representative samples.

Graue and DiPerna found that students do not seem to benefit socially from being redshirted. Their self-concept and acceptance by peers are about the same, as are teacher ratings of behavior for oldest (redshirted) and youngest (not redshirted) children. In fact, retrospective and cross-sectional analyses show redshirts doing less well than their peers on measures of behavior problems, Graue says. Although it is not argued that redshirting has caused increased rates of social and emotional difficulty, it does not appear to solve social or emotional problems.

Graying of kindergarten

Because academic redshirting occurs before formal schooling begins, it is not subject to the stigma attached to retention or transitional grades. But the practice has resulted in a "graying of the kindergarten." Students in kindergarten classes are increasingly likely to be six years old, bringing with them the skills and expectations that another year of life experience provides. Once redshirted children arrive at school, parents often request a more advanced curriculum for their redshirted 6-year-old kindergartners.

When communities embrace redshirting, parents feel pressure to redshirt younger boys even when they are ready for school. To avoid the stress of considering delay of school entry, parents have reported timing the conception of their child with redshirting in mind.

Risks of delayed entry

Some believe redshirting will head off the need for extra support because the additional year of growth will move children to the top of their class. If these expectations are accurate, one would expect redshirted students to need fewer supplemental educational programs than comparable students who had made normal entry and enrollment progress. But Graue’s study does not support this view. All groups who are overage-for-grade, whether they have been redshirted or retained, have higher participation in special education services for learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities and emotional disabilities. In fact, delaying entry or promotion was associated with higher likelihood of exceptional educational needs (EEN) services, with redshirts being 1.89 times more likely to participate in EEN programs. 

Graue compared achievement of various entry and promotion groups on the Wisconsin Third Grade Reading Test and found that all groups are statistically and practically even in their test results, with the exception of students who were retained during early elementary years. Redshirts achieve on par with their grade-level peers, including summer birthday children who entered on time (though they are not on top as some would suggest). All retainees performed at levels below their grade level peers. Retention does not close the gap for children who experience early school failure.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Redshirts tend to be relatively young boys. Retainees are more likely to be relatively young, as well, but are much more likely to be children of color and of poverty. Across studies, many parents have noted that they decided to redshirt at the child’s birth because they believed it was important for boys to be the oldest in a group. It is unlikely, though, that levels of readiness differ so drastically, Graue says. Further, redshirting has serious economic effects for parents. It involves an additional year of either lost wages or of childcare, which is a luxury that many families cannot afford. 

For more information contact Graue at or see:

Graue, M.E., and Smith, A.Z. (1996). Parents and mathematics education reform: Voicing the authority of assessment. Urban Education, 30(4), 395- 421; and Graue, M.E., and Walsh, D.J. (1998). Studying children in context: Theories, methods and ethics. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.