WASHINGTON -- Devi Knaster knows her letters, can count to 10, and is no longer too shy to speak to adults or play with other children. Plus, she's developed the social skills her mother felt she needed for the first year of more than a decade of school.
Devi, a 5-year-old who spent an extra year in preschool, is ready for the rigors of kindergarten.
"She probably would have been fine had we forced her into kindergarten early," said Devi's mom, Barbara Knaster, a computer consultant from Campbell, Calif. "Now I know she's really ready. She's much more self-confident."
This fall, thousands more children will shelve their lunchboxes. In reference to a sports term for a team athlete not quite ready for games, roughly 9 percent of young children each year are "red-shirted" for kindergarten. Their school careers are either delayed by state laws raising the age of kindergarten enrollment or by parents holding their children out until they feel they've matured.
As kindergarten gets increasingly academic, with children being encouraged to read sooner and better, the debate over red-shirting intensifies.
"Parents really struggle over that," said Heidi Inouye-Steiner, president of the California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools, Inc. "What if the kids are ready and you hold them back? What if you send them and they're not ready? It's a very tough call for parents."
The conventional wisdom has been that children should stay out if they've barely made the cutoff age or if parents doubt they're ready. But more educators armed with new research say anxious lawmakers and parents should be careful: sometimes children will do better if they immediately get school-based attention to their learning and emotional development.
"Some people talk about giving children the gift of time," said Dan Miller, an associate professor who directs the school psychology graduate training programs at Texas Woman's University, in Denton. "If an at-risk child stays at home and comes to you a year later, he or she may be even more at risk.
"A child placed in a preschool program is at least getting socialization skills," said Miller, who also sells preschool and kindergarten screening materials and services to school districts and private campuses. Kindergarten Interventions and Diagnostic Services Inc. serves about 100,000 children annually.
Early-childhood experts can't agree on when children should start kindergarten ¡ a German program of developmental play, song and stories brought here in 1856. It was once standard practice to enroll new kindergartners in September as long as they were going to be 5 by December or January. This brought many 4-year-olds straight from preschool, or from home. Even if they could count, they might not be able to sit still or follow directions.
So lawmakers, like those backing a new California kindergarten plan, recently began trying to bring a more sophisticated pool of children into the classroom. Most states now say children must be 5 by September or October. The 4-year-olds are left waiting another year.
Some parents say they prefer to use the rules as guides; not mandates.
Kathleen Clough is sending Reyna, who will be 6 in January, to kindergarten this fall. Had Reyna been a few months younger, say born in September, Clough would have certainly considered giving her time to develop.
"There's a real hue and a cry by parents who say that means another year of expensive day care," said Clough. "But they're not really thinking, is my child really ready? There's a just pool of parents who say, 'Hey, they meet the rules, I don't care how ready they are going in.' "
Denise Weis, a Mountain Home, Idaho, kindergarten teacher, agreed parents should take a more active role in gauging their children's abilities. She had to recommend retaining 16 of 52 students this spring because they simply hadn't learned their letters or couldn't count to 20; they had started below ground-zero.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm teaching two or three grades," Weis said. "I have 6-year-olds who can't count. One child couldn't write his name; I don't know whether he ever had a pencil in his hand."
Barbara Willer, public affairs director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C., said the group opposes red-shirting, worried that it will only fuel the move toward requiring more academic skills of children who are just developing.
"When you hold children out you are actually sanctioning an inappropriate curriculum," said Willer. "It adds to the momentum of expecting them to do work more acceptable for older children."
Said Miller: "We've lost sight of the development aspect of kindergarten. We live in a day and age where you have tests that are required to graduate high school."
Eventually, he said, schools with failing 12th graders will look down the line and wonder why the kindergarten teacher didn't send them to first grade "ready to read. "
But because kindergarten is not mandatory in every state like other grades, the decision still lies mainly with parents.
Knaster, who held her daughter out a year, allowed her son, Jess, to attend when he was 4. He was a bright kid who had already taught himself to read, she said. Now, he's a 14-year-old sophomore well adjusted except for being a little envious of his classmates who will get their drivers' licenses much sooner.
"He had gotten kicked out of preschool," she said "It was too boring. For him, the challenge got to be how to take over the class. At the time it was the right decision."
Researchers argue there's just not enough information to determine which way is better.
"Redshirting for kindergarten or retention in the early grades should not be widely promoted or endorsed until we know more," said University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Elizabeth Graue, who helped study 8,500 Wisconsin youngsters.
The results appear mixed. She and her colleagues found that for students held out a year had as much self-esteem as other children but had more behavior problems. Red-shirted children were less likely to need special education services or other extra help, but they didn't make any better grades than their peers.
Because preschool in the United States, unlike some European and Asian countries, isn't free and available to all children, families who can afford it are increasingly turning to private preschools or cooperatives, where parents pitch in with teaching and administrative tasks. Such options make parents more confident about the decision to delay kindergarten, or able to live with their child not meeting the age cutoff.
"You have much better opportunity to see whether your child is really ready for kindergarten or for the fall," said Inouye-Steiner. " It's really a wonderful opportunity for parents to have that time and watch their kids grow."
But some poor and minority children are less likely to have the preschool alternative; either there's no room for them in subsidized programs like Head Start or there are few locations in their neighborhoods. Without enough preschools, delaying kindergarten just sends such children back home, said Willer of the early childhood education group.
"It doesn't make sense to keep asking for public dollars for opportunities to preschools while you're keeping children out (of kindergarten) for age entry," she said.
Sometimes But the practice can harm certain groups, like boys who are more likely to sit out kindergarten, Miller said.
"In some parts of country, some parents want their children to be bigger and stronger in athletics," Miller said. "It's not motivated by what's in the best interest of the child."