Thursday, August 1, 2019

When should your gifted child start kindergarten?

The monumental, tear-jerking transition from preschool to kindergarten seems (gulp) like as big a milestone for parents as it is for kids. Our babies are growing up! And we want them to thrive, embrace learning, and adapt to the social and maturational demands of this new chapter. How do we know when and if they are ready for kindergarten - especially if they are gifted?

Most school districts have rigid, age-based cutoffs that dictate when children should start kindergarten. Some offer basic screening evaluations, where teachers briefly meet the children and assess basic information, such as whether they know their numbers and colors. Parents of gifted children often question whether this age-based cutoff is the best policy, though. Does it take into account their pace, depth and intensity of learning? What about asynchronous development and maturity?

As a result, parents of gifted children sometimes consider any and all of the following options:

1. Grade acceleration

Some parents advocate for their child to start kindergarten at an earlier age. This typically occurs when highly verbal, socially mature, gifted children are academically and developmentally advanced well beyond their age-based peers. They may be very early readers, advanced in math, more independent than most children their age, and already interact well with older peers.

Most research indicates that acceleration is beneficial for gifted students. Given the negative attitudes toward this practice found in many school districts, some parents resort to paying for private kindergarten to bypass the age-based cut-off, and then advocate for their child to skip first grade. Other times, they may need to request an IQ evaluation prior to kindergarten, and advocate for early entry. Either way, it is often a battle. The NAGC offers guidelines for districts on developing policies for early kindergarten entry.

Most gifted children who skip kindergarten or first grade adapt easily to this transition. They grasp material quickly, and many already are advanced compared with their peers in terms of reading and math skills. School districts sometimes refuse to endorse acceleration due to claims that it could negatively impact a child's later social adjustment.

Are concerns about later problematic social adjustment valid? Although most research debunks these concerns, each child is different, and some will struggle as they get older. Questions to consider include the following:

  • How will they adjust if they reach puberty or their adolescent growth spurt much later than their peers?
  • Will they have the social maturity to navigate middle school and high school social pressures at a younger age than others?
  • Will you allow them to date, travel, and go away to college at a much younger age than if they were on target with their age-based peers?

All of the above factors are difficult to predict. But if you have concerns based on your child's current developmental level and social maturity, you might delay grade acceleration - at least until a later point. This is an option that can be revisited when you have more information about your child's adaptation to school, social adjustment, and need for intellectual challenge. Grade or subject acceleration at a later time is much easier to address than managing the possible negative repercussions of a hasty decision to enter kindergarten at an early age.

2. Red-shirting

The trend to "red-shirt" (a term borrowed from sports), where parents delay kindergarten entry, has taken hold in recent years. With the intention of offering children an academic advantage, red-shirting is typically initiated by upper-middle or upper income parents of white, male children, whose birthdays fall a few months shy of the district's age-based cutoff. One study found that parents who delayed their child's kindergarten entry had incomes that were 200% higher than the national poverty level, suggesting that this preference favored those who could afford the extra year of preschool.

Some parents initiate red-shirting to enhance their child's academic advantages, as research has shown that the oldest students in a given classroom tend to have higher test scores. However, most base this decision on more subjective developmental, social and readiness factors. Many red-shirt their sons, in particular, to give them an advantage in terms of height, emotional maturity, and time to adapt to the rigid structure of school - a place not geared toward the learning needs of energetic boys. A recent study found that children who turned five just prior to starting kindergarten were more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than those who turned six soon after starting kindergarten, suggesting a trend toward overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis among some active children who were too young to conform to the school's structure and expectations.

It might seem counterintuitive to red-shirt gifted children, given their need for intellectual stimulation and a challenging learning environment. Yet, some gifted children can benefit from red-shirting, particularly those who exhibit asynchronous development, are less mature than their age-based peers, are late-bloomers, or are twice-exceptional. Some just need the "gift of play" where they have an additional year of free play and creativity before they settle into the demands of school. If kindergarten entry is delayed to allow them an additional year to mature, there still may be options to  subject or grade accelerate at a later time.

If you are considering red-shirting your child, weigh all of the short-term and long-range factors. Visit the school's kindergarten and first grade and imagine your child's adaptation to the structure, social climate and demands. Solicit advice from your child's preschool teachers, pediatrician, or other knowledgeable adults. Seek an evaluation with a psychologist if necessary. How amenable is your child to sitting still and engaging in structured activities? Do your child's academic needs outweigh the social and emotional? Would your child feel bored or frustrated as one of the oldest in the class? While some conclude that there are few advantages to red-shirting over time, many children, and adults report satisfaction with the decision to delay kindergarten entry, and have no regrets. Find out what is permitted within your district; some have negative views about the practice, or do not even allow it.

3. On-time start

In addition to traditional public schools, parents who choose to start their child on-time may pursue other options, especially if these are affordable. They might include any of the following:

  • Private, charter, or religious schools, or schools with a particular philosophical approach, such as Montessori, Waldorf, or International schools that provide language immersion. With the exception of charter schools, most of these are expensive, although some schools offer scholarships or financial aid. Some parents choose to enroll their children in these more focused and individualized programs for kindergarten, and then move them to the public schools for first grade. 

  • Schools for gifted students. In these programs, students are offered the individualized attention they would receive at most private schools, but with a focus on the needs of the gifted. Their peers are gifted, so there is more opportunity for engaging, higher-level classroom discussion and most students feel less driven to mask their giftedness. Kindergarten at such schools may include a balanced combination of challenging academics, creative exploration and play time. Every school is different, so investigate the details.

  • Homeschooling. Some parents choose to homeschool their children, especially those who are highly gifted. They may be able to provide the higher level exploration of topics that would not be available in most schools. They worry that their children would be bored in a traditional school and this might extinguish their love of learning. They also may be concerned if their child has difficulty relating to peers, and want to prevent incidents of bullying or isolation. Since kindergarten focuses on socialization, it is important that homeschooled children still have opportunities for peer interactions through homeschool co-ops or other extra-curricular activities.

The transition to kindergarten is a big step for both the child and family. Some parents have the financial resources to consider various educational options, or question whether to red-shirt or accelerate their gifted child. There are no clear or simple guidelines, and it can be daunting to balance a gifted child's need for intellectual stimulation with social and emotional fit. Seek out as much advice, information and guidance as possible, and recognize that most decisions can be changed at a later time. Consider your child's social/emotional needs and developmental maturity, and how these blend with programs available in the schools. Make a decision, and continue to monitor your child's progress. Your child's needs at age five may differ from those at age ten or 15, and further options (such as additional acceleration) can be considered at a later time. Whatever you choose, you will know that you made a well-informed decision, with the best of intentions for your child.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Blog Hop on Transitions. To see more blogs, click on this link.


  1. Is there much research on the acceleration of profoundly gifted children who are performing several years beyond their age? It would seem that accelerating a child who is chronologically ready for kindergarten into first grade would not offer much benefit if that student is reading, writing and doing math at a 2nd or 3rd grade level. Thus, if the student is years beyond their age, why accept any downsides from acceleration without any clear academic gain. Also, even if allowed by the school, accelerating that 5-year-old into a classroom of 7- or 8-year-olds to access intellectually-appropriate coursework and instruction would seem to surely create social issues. Putting these two scenarios together, is acceleration really an option for a child who is learning material several years beyond their age?

    1. Anonymous, This is always complicated for PG kids. Some families accelerate and then continue to accelerate, even though their child will be much younger than their school-age peers. Others search for different options. I would suggest reading more of the information out there about acceleration, and of course, getting evaluations from experts in your community who can help you sort out what is available. Good luck.

  2. I call it "the s-word", because of the way it it tossed around. I now homeschool because my son is almost 3 grades ahead and my daughter almost 2 grades.
    Here's what people so narrowmindedly forget about that s-word. It doesn't happen inside school. Or not entirely anyway. In just our part of our state my kids have ipwards of 3,000+ peers ages 4-18 to interact with on any given day. Field trip, events (prom anyone?). My children more directly have 60+ peers ages 5-14 who that participate in theater with.
    Does that sound like a more well rounded experience?
    And as a former gifted kid who was forced to remain in age/grade- you can spend 13 years with them nut if you have nothing in common and are the "weirdo" and are always tasked to teach them, you will not be making any friends.

    1. Amanda, Thanks for your input on how school affected both you and your children.