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The question

My son turns 4 in December, and he's supposed to start kindergarten in Ontario this fall. He will be among the youngest students in his class, and I'm afraid he will fall behind. I'm considering holding him back a year. Would that benefit him?

The answer

Some districts, most recently Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, have introduced full-day kindergarten as a way for the youngest students to get a jump start on their socialization and learning. Not all parents are convinced. As Malcolm Gladwell famously noted, Canadian national-hockey-team players have tended to be the oldest of their cohort. But are findings about the benefits of physical size in winning at team sports applicable to learning in the classroom?

There's a trend among parents in the United States to hold their children back for a year. They believe that children who are older and more verbal are more likely to excel and be chosen as leaders. Keep in mind, though, these parents often also provide their kids with other enriched preschool experiences.

Janette Pelletier, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies early childhood development, said research shows that holding a child back from kindergarten has no academic advantage and, more interestingly, can have social disadvantages, such as reducing a child's motivation. The system, she said, is geared to address developmental needs and interests no matter when children are born or what their gender. "Of course, older kindergarteners are more verbal and are more advanced in early literacy. But the younger children will get there when they are developmentally ready," she said. "Having exposure to great literacy models and participating in exciting learning through play in kindergarten is good for children of all ages."

Before you hold your son back, you should also ask yourself some tough questions. Are you afraid he won't do as well as other kids in the class? Early learning, as Pelletier suggests, is not about beating the competition. Kids learn together and from each other and the mix of ages will be his first introduction to all the differences out there.

The Guidance Counsellor is a column that answers reader questions on navigating the education system. Send your questions to