You’re probably on a pretty similar level of intellectual, social, and emotional maturity to your friends or co-workers who have a couple of years on you, or vice versa. At older ages, the margin of difference in maturity is negligible – but – when it comes to children, maturity is constantly evolving, and even small age differences have huge impacts, making their school starting age an important social, academic and athletic development consideration.
If your child is above the age of three, think about how incredibly different they were than just six months ago, much less a year ago. In a similar vein, a child who turns five a month before beginning school is at a major disadvantage when compared to the child who turns six a week or so into the school year. After all, the second kid has nearly a year of life on the first which, at this stage, is nearly 20% of their little lives. The developmental differences are bound to be huge.
The younger child is bound to have a more difficult time. A year less of experience living in the world and being a person correlates to less maturity, a lack of self-control and a decreased ability to pay attention for long periods of time.
A recent study by researchers from Harvard Medical School published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that kids whose school starting age were younger than their peers face more challenges than simply struggling with maturity, self-control and paying attention. They also face a higher occurrence of ADHD diagnosis.
In examining a large sample of children in US states with a Sept. 1 school starting age cutoff, researchers found that children born in August were 34% more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis and treatment compared to their older classmates.
The researchers used the records of a large insurance database to follow more than 407,000 elementary school children born between 2007 and 2009, until the end of 2015. They compared the difference in ADHD diagnosis by birth month—the young ones born in August versus the older ones born in September. The 34% increase in ADHD diagnosis was astounding.
“Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being over-diagnosed and over-treated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school”, said the study’s lead author Timothy Layton in a statement.
A quick reminder as to what ADHD is: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a chronic neurobiological disorder that affects the brain structurally and chemically, as well as the ways in which various parts of the brain communicate with one another. For boys, the symptoms tend to include hyperactivity and inattention. For girls, ADHD often results in a tendency towards daydreaming and trouble following instructions.
The rate of diagnosis for ADHD has doubled in the past 20 years. Researchers suspect that the diagnosis rate is definitely due in part to better recognition of the disorder and a genuine increase in the prevalence of the condition – but they also think misdiagnosis is likely at play.
So is this a good case for extending your child’s school starting age?
Coupled with research suggesting that enrolling kids into school early hurts them academically and emotionally, it probably is. A 2017 working paper from researchers at the University of Toronto, Northwestern University, and University of Florida found that a sampling of children in Florida with August birthdays and a September 1st cutoff (making them younger) had worse elementary school test scores, were less likely to attend college, and more likely to be put in jail for a juvenile crime. This research remained true regardless of parents’ education level, income. Furthermore, multiple studies have found that children born in September have a sporting advantage over children born in August because they have nearly a whole extra year to grow and develop.
Holding kids back is not only less detrimental than starting them early, but also has been found to have benefits. A 2015 study from Stanford University showed that Danish kids who postponed starting school for up to one year showed dramatically higher levels of self-control. Rates of inattention and hyperactivity were reduced by 73% for those who waited. The author of that paper stated that the effect withstood the test of time. At age 11, those whose schooling had been postponed still had either average or lower-than-average scores of inattention or hyperactivity. “We were a bit surprised at how persistent the effect was,” said Thomas Dee, one of the co-authors and a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor.
To put the school starting age to test, we can look to countries like Finland and Germany, where it’s customary for kids to start school relatively late. Kids do not seem to fare worse later in life: Finland scores well in international tests of 15-year-olds.
Though when a child starts school is a big, multi-dimensional decision based on a wide range of factors and may not be a choice for certain parents, the diagnosis of ADHD is a simpler topic to breach. When thinking about whether to look into ADHD diagnosis, take the child’s age relative to his or her peers in the same grade into consideration as well as the reasons for referral.