Parents are Holding Their Kids Back in School to Make Them More Competitive Athletes
In hopes of turning their kids into exceptional athletes, parents across the country are reclassifying them, or having their children repeat a year of middle or high school. Here's what experts are saying.
When Jenna Knapp of Des Moines, Iowa, recently accompanied her 12-year-old son to an interstate Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball tournament in Indianapolis, she was taken aback to see that many of the athletes were larger than her son. And not just by a little bit. "There was a huge difference," recalls Knapp. Curious as to why, Knapp started chatting up some of the other parents. "That's when it was brought to my attention that it's pretty common now to reclass your child,” she says.
Reclassing or reclassifying is the process of opting to hold a child back a year in high school or middle school, so they'll have an edge athletically by being taller, larger, or more skilled than their peer group.
Holding kids back to give them extra time to mature cognitively and socially is nothing new. Redshirting in kindergarten has been studied for decades. (The term is borrowed from redshirting in college sports, the well-known practice of postponing a student's official participation on a team to give the athlete a chance to mature physically. It's sanctioned by the coach and the team.) But it is a bit more controversial when young kids without any notable academic or social impediments are repeating grades simply to gain a leg up in sports.
- RELATED: Why I Hate Kindergarten Redshirting
In reclassing, it’s usually the parents taking the initiative to hold the child back. Schools and districts may vary on rules regarding whether or not administrators have to sign off on permitting a child to repeat a grade. But even when a principal has the right of refusal and doesn’t allow reclassing, determined parents can take matters into their own hands and simply switch schools. Some have done just that.
How Common is Reclassing?
Putting the trend into perspective, Kevin Bruce Blackistone, a sports journalist and frequent ESPN commentator, won’t call it “widespread” but acknowledges that there has been a recent uptick in its usage in youth sports. “It’s become used more and more in the past five, six, seven years,” says Blackistone, a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
This surge is likely because promising athletes want to increase their odds of securing spots on select college teams and receiving generous sports scholarships. The media exposure from playing on high-profile college teams, which can lead to lucrative professional careers, may also be fueling the trend.
And some high school coaches have noticed reclassing in sports across the board. "This is a bigger issue and bigger conversation than an isolated sport. This is about parents saying, 'What strategy can I use in order to get my child the best advantage possible?'" says Frantz Pierre-Louis, father of two sons now playing Division I basketball, a former professional basketball player, and a basketball coach to legions of kids in New Jersey (some have gone on to play for the NBA).
For Kevin Armstrong, Ed.D., principal of DuPont Hadley Middle School in Old Hickory, Tennessee—a football-centric part of the county—reclassing is pretty familiar. Dr. Armstrong estimates that there were about 10 male students in his experience over the last 25 years who were reclassed between seventh and eighth grade.
In other parts of the country, it’s not as common. For example, David Wick, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a junior-high principal in Columbia Falls, Montana, has had limited experience with it personally. In his own rural district, there have only been two cases in the 23 years he has been principal.
Are There Advantages to Reclassing?
Unlike redshirting in kindergarten, where there is research suggesting that academic advantages fade out, there is little, if any, research on the effects of reclassing—possibly because parents and schools are reluctant to bring attention to this decision.
But it can confer some physical advantages, says Patricia Burris-Warmoth, M.D., the director of adolescent medicine at Flushing Hospital Medical Center in New York City. A boy who reclasses in eighth grade, for example, would increase the odds he would have more muscle mass and more upper-body strength than this peer group.
And those like Wick, Dr. Armstrong, Pierre-Louis, and Blackistone—who've followed the trajectories of kids who have reclassed—agree that, for some kids, it has led to a professional career or a college scholarship.
Yet experts aren't so sure how it affects children psychologically. Dr. Armstrong is concerned about the implications when kids—sometimes as young as 11 years old—are held back. "Personally, I think it messes with the kids' heads," says Dr. Armstrong. He worries that the same concerns that plague kids retained for academic reason come into play with reclassing. "It's the same as a child saying, 'I made all F's and I repeated a grade. Now I'm with a group of kids that are younger me.'"
Meanwhile, psychologists don’t have precise information about the social/emotional repercussions from reclassing because of the absence of research. But Bergen County, New Jersey, school psychologist Gila Elbaum suggests that if parents are deciding on reclassing, potential social ramifications, such as the emotional fallout from seeing former classmates move on, should be considered. “Watching your age mates experience the different milestones ahead of you can make a child feel ostracized,” explains Elbaum.
The Bottom Line
For parents of a gifted athlete faced with the dilemma of reclassing, the "right" decision is a bit of a blend of core beliefs and doing what's right for a particular child. Certainly, a rule of guidance that no expert would argue with is that it's a decision that should be made carefully and thoughtfully—with the child's best interest and the family dynamics at the forefront of the discussion.