For parents whose children turn 5 near the beginning of the school year, the struggle over when to start them in kindergarten is real. Cutoff dates vary by district, but generally a child with an early fall birthday might either start school as a brand-new 5-year-old or even as an “old” 4-year-old, or wait a year (commonly called “redshirting”) and start at age 6. There are multiple factors to consider, from childcare to academic concerns. But what about the psychological effects of when a child starts school? Many of us can empathize with what it feels like to be the youngest in a classroom or on a team. But could those feelings have long term effects on a child’s mental health?
A new study out of the UK says the answer is yes. Children born in the last quadrant of ages eligible for a particular grade level (the youngest kids in the class) have about a 30 percent higher rate of diagnoses such as ADHD, intellectual disabilities, anxiety and depression.
The study examined over one million children in the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, a database of patient information used to support health and clinical research. It found that children who were young relative to their grade level were “1.3 times more likely than the oldest quarter of children in the school year to be diagnosed with intellectual disability, 1.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and 1.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.”
On top of that, additional research published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization, indicates that kids who are older at the start of kindergarten have certain advantages. Older students were found to have higher test scores later in their schooling. They were also more likely to graduate from college, and less likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system.
The reasons for these trends are easy to understand.
Children with late birthdays can be almost a year younger than some of their classmates. Huge changes happen in children’s development in just a year — social skills advance, coordination improves, attention spans increase. It’s easy to imagine that some of these younger children may have difficulty keeping up with their older peers.
“It makes sense that as a child, if you’re comparing yourself to someone a year older, even something as simple as kicking a football — the difference in size between a four-year-old and a five-year-old is stark, so it’s most likely similar for mental development,” Dr Joseph Hayes, co-author of the UK study and clinical research fellow consultant at University College London, told The Telegraph. “Teachers also have expectations of certain behaviours.” Not being developmentally ready to keep pace with older children who are considered your peers could have a significant detrimental impact on mental health and well being.
So how do parents make sure their kids are ready for school?
Diana Stone, a former pre-K and kindergarten teacher, offered helpful developmental guidelines for parents to consider when deciding if their child is ready for a formal kindergarten program. As she told Babble, a child who’s ready for school will likely:
- Draw a relatively detailed picture of themselves with a head, body, arms, legs, hands, feet, and facial features
- Notice minor differences in shapes, pictures, or the sounds of words (cat/cup)
- Tell stories, often while pretending to “read” a book
- Retell a story or personal experience, with events in the order they happened
- Pick out beginning sounds in words
- Recognize sounds using letter flashcards
- Know numbers from 1-10 (out of order)
- Follow basic directions (like above or around)
- Recognize rhyming words
- Be at the early stages of writing letters and numbers
- Use the restroom on their own
- Exhibit self-control and cooperation
It’s important to note, parents and educators point to many advantages of being the youngest in class as well. Young students may benefit from looking up to older classmates. Particularly inquisitive children might get bored if held back and put in class with younger kids. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, also pointed out the economic impact. She estimates that students could miss out on as much as $80,000 in income from getting a late start. She also emphasized that many benefits to holding a child back are small, and tend to even out over time.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide if their children are ready to begin school at an earlier age than their peers. Carol, a parent of two late-birthday children, sees it both ways. “I had one child reading before they even began kindergarten screenings and one who wasn’t ready for more than a few hours of school a week. We made the decision on what worked for each of them individually and hoped for the best.”
In the end, the most important thing is providing our kids with a quality education — no matter what age they start.