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Why babies born in September may have an advantage in school

When is the best age to start kindergarten? Depends on the child, but studies show older is often better.
/ Source: TODAY

A study suggests that the month in which you're born may help you out in school.

Research into the age of children as they start kindergarten found that students who are older than most of their classmates had an academic edge over their younger peers. The study may contribute to the debate over whether parents should “redshirt” children who have birthdays right before school-enrollment deadlines.

The working paper published in 2017 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at public-school data on children born between 1994 and 2000 in Florida, which has a Sept. 1 cutoff date for new student admission.

How birth month affects your future

Researchers paid particular attention to the differences between children born in August and those born in September, because that extra month often meant the students were more likely to wait an entire year before starting school.

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Data showed that the September-born children were 2.1 percent more likely to attend college compared to their August-born classmates. They also were 3.3 percent more likely to graduate from college, and 15.4 percent less likely to be get into trouble with the law while underage.

But the report's authors warn against taking specific advice from the study.

"It certainly doesn't tell parents to hold (children) back," Krzysztof Karbownik, one of the report’s authors, told TODAY Parents. "That's the biggest misinterpretation that people can draw from the research."

The pros and cons of redshirting

Parents first need to think of the needs and personality of their individual child, and not just consider whether redshirting would give their student an academic advantage, he said.

“If you’re (holding an August-born child back) to give just an extra boost to your kids, it might actually backfire. Parents think about the immediate gains, but they don't think about the cost that redshirting could bring," said Karbownik, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

In particular, it could mean a significant loss of income once the student enters the labor force, he said.

When should kids start kindergarten?

Past studies on the topic of the age at which children start school have resulted in conflicting findings.

A 2006 report by University of Southern California professor Gary Painter found no academic or social advantage to delaying a child’s entry into kindergarten.

Painter, director of USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy, pointed out that today's children have far more chances to advance academically thanks to auxiliary programs offered in reading, math or other subjects.

Painter told TODAY that students who start kindergarten at age 6 are going to have “some natural advantages” including larger body size and more advanced social skills. But in the past, when schools didn’t offer many supplemental programs for higher-performing students, those advantages eventually leveled out as they advanced through school.

That may not be the case now, Painter said.

“What might be happening is that initial advantages get reinforced in our education system, and initial disadvantages might be getting reinforced. And so that speaks more to our education system, how it interacts with existing advantage,” he said.

Painter had a personal interest in the research. He has a son with an August birthday, and wasn’t sure whether to send him to kindergarten as one of the youngest in his class, or hold him back a year.

The decision he made is reflected in his paper.

“If you're on the fence, send them to kindergarten. If they struggle, then have them repeat kindergarten,” he said.

“That was a practical thing for a parent to do, and that’s what I did as a parent. I sent my kid to kindergarten, and for him, he was fine," he said. "He proceeded along without an issue and now he’s a 20-year-old in college."

Editor's note: This story was first published on September 19, 2017, and has been updated.