The Harsh Truth About Holding Kids Back

Detail of sport shirt in the stadium, over green grass.

By Guest Contributor Michael McArdle

There is an alarming, new trend developing across America: Redshirting middle school and high school students for the sole purpose of sports. Most often it is occurring at the eighth grade level in order for parents to give their child an extra year of physical development in hopes of increasing their odds of obtaining a college scholarship. The practice has become so common it now has its own terminology: “reclassifying.” This refers to changing the graduation date that normally would have occurred (2015) to a new classification (2016). While there are few national statistics, one in the state of New Jersey estimates this practice is now at a level over 20% and significantly more common in private schools (40%).

Until recently, “redshirting” – the practice of holding a child back for one year in school to allow for further development, was limited to two areas:

  • Kindergarten (for academic purposes) and College (for sports eligibility purposes).

At the college level, an athlete in their freshmen year may practice with a team but is prohibited from competing in order to develop additional skills and knowledge prior to beginning their eligibility clock

Typically, some 17 percent of children old enough to start kindergarten are “redshirted.” The belief, on the part of parents, is that the child may lag behind in terms of social skills or may be “too young” in their estimation. The problem is, delaying school is rarely the right approach because the absolutely highest use of energy in the human brain occurs around the age of four (right before kindergarten). It is impossible to put the brain’s development on “hold” while you wait for the child’s body and social skills to catch up. You have six years to maximize early development and wasting one full year because a child is undersized is not a wise decision.

What people do not realize is, large-scale studies reveal children who are “young” actually make considerably more progress in reading and math than children who were “old” for their first year of school. Perhaps more startling is the evidence suggests that children who skip a grade, actually progress at an even higher rate than “young” starters! These students produce achievement results at a level twice as large as programs designed for “gifted” children.

Is it “wrong” to hold a child back then? No. But the point to recognize is any achievement of older children that is greater than younger children’s academic success occurs in the primary grades, but those differences disappear over time.

Here is what I know: no studies have ever shown its exact impact. While there may be numerous anecdotal success stories, my perspective on the practice is a three-fold viewpoint:

  1. The numbers argue against the practice: Just 3.3 percent of high school seniors playing men’s basketball will have roster positions on NCAA teams as freshmen—with or without scholarships, according to NCAA data. For women, the figure is 3.7 percent. The odds are almost as slim in men’s soccer, football, and baseball. The chance of getting an athletic scholarship is even smaller, even for students whose parents can devote the hundreds of hours–and thousands of dollars–that high-level youth sports often require. Finally, only two percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities.
  2. If the trend continues, and more and more parents holdback their kids for athletic reasons, don’t you lose your advantage? After all, this trend only works if you are the outlier. Once everyone jumps on the trend, all the kids are back with their peer group except instead of being in ninth grade, they’re in the eighth grade again.
  3. The impact on the brain. First, repeating a grade academically, for most children, is a form of social embarrassment. Even if the choice is made solely for athletic reasons, it is awkward to sit in a classroom with learners you know are a grade behind you, and can be especially humiliating if you then find them outperforming you academically. On the other hand, how rewarding would it be to outperform classmates knowing you have already been through the classes once before? Even if you were the “top performer” academically, none of the other competing students would attribute that to intellect. They would see it as unfair.

Most critically, the brain is a social organ. It grows best through its connection to other social organs (via friendship and playmates). In fact, one of the most powerful psychological needs of every human being is the need to belong. The need to love and be loved, to be part of a community, to be part of a peer group, drives everything we do and will become. To willingly cut your child off from a community he/she may have been part of for more than eight years, for the sole purpose of sports, is a risky choice. Everything a middle school child is, is wound into and bound by their peer group. Eviscerating that may produce serious negative effects and buried resentment. After all, it is typically the parent making the choice – not the child.

It is not “wrong” to consider holding a child back. There are definitely situations that warrant it (typically these are limited to kindergarten). What is “wrong” is to fail to look at all the factors involved in this gamble. Yes, it is a gamble. You are betting that your child’s chances of a scholarship outweigh the chances they will suffer from being cut-off from their “graduating class.” Quite frankly, it’s a gamble I would avoid.

Michael McArdle is a Learning Research Specialist and the former Executive Director of the non-profit Learning Patterns Corporation. He writes, lectures, and conducts workshops on a variety of subjects dealing with the development of the human mind.

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