This is the second installment of our twin series. Check out part one,“Seeing Double: How the Rise of Twins Affects Pregnancy and Birth.”
I wasn’t prepared to have twins, frankly who is? But of all the things I worried about while carrying around 13 pounds of baby and holding my swollen body up with a walker, being allowed to make the decision about separating them when they got to school was pretty far down the list (i.e., not on the list at all). But now those babies are headed off to preschool this fall, and that means pre-K and kindergarten are looming on the horizon. So like any good worrier, this particular topic is trending in my mind.
Like me, you probably knew a set of twins growing up, but likely just one set (or at the very least, you definitely read the Sweet Valley High books). All through my elementary, junior high and high school years, when someone said “the twins,” we all knew exactly to whom they were referring. Now, if you are a parent of any under-18-year-olds, it feels like there are multiple sets of multiples everywhere. And you wouldn’t be wrong.
Births of twins have increased 76 percent since 1980, and currently, 33 out of every 1,000 births are twins. Schools are seeing the obvious increase in twin students that follows those births. While there aren’t exact numbers, it’s more likely than ever that your kids’ classrooms will be home to twins or even multiple sets of twins. Lynn M. Gordon, professor of elementary education at California State University–Northridge, wrote in a recent article on twins and kindergarten separation in Educational Policy that because now one in every 30 children is a twin and the typical U.S. class size is roughly 25 to 30 students, there is an average of one twin in every classroom. My fraternal 3-year-olds were in five trimesters of pre-preschool—and in almost all of them there was a second set of twins in their class. And when they head to preschool in September—you guessed it—there will be another set of twins with them in their classroom, one of at least five sets in the school overall.
Teachers, school principals and directors all have anecdotal experience of this, from preschool to public school. “I only had one set of twins in my classroom in Chicago the entire seven years I worked there until 2008,” said Kimberly Mettler, a twin mom herself and now a New York City public school teacher. “But when I moved, it seemed like I had one or two children from a set of [separated] twins every year. I can’t say if the swelling numbers of twins in the classroom had more to do with the year, location, or the fact that my Brooklyn school has a much larger student population than the school in Chicago.”
Twins typically stay together through nursery and preschool. Paula Heitman, the director of a nonprofit that provides a play space and classes to kids under 5, said, “We had eight sets of twins last year. I don’t do anything special when assigning classes, but I do give the teachers a heads up that they will have a set (or two) of twins in their class.” Eileen Shannon, director of a preschool in Brooklyn who has 25 years of experience, has seen more twins attending her school in the last five to 10 years, and says that teachers aim to treat them as individuals while still respecting their twinness. “We tend to think of them as unique kids. We watch what they are doing and we’ll interrupt them if they are always making choices together,” she explains. “The goal is for the dominant twin to be more flexible or have the passive twin be more assertive and let people know their ideas.” There are practical considerations too in treating them each individually. “We try to talk about them one at a time at parent/teacher conferences,” says Tom Cucinotta, education director at the same preschool. “And we have to remember to give each twin their own mail pouch and class portrait.”
But then comes kindergarten. Typically schools or districts have a blanket policy that mandates separation, and only a few states have legislation that gives parents the decision-making power. This means the United States is overwhelmingly more likely to separate twins—with 80 to 84 percent placed separately—than countries like the UK (31 percent), the Netherlands (19 to 48 percent) and Australia (23 to 60 percent). Gordon’s study found that the more removed the person from the children, the more likely they are to support separation, with a majority of principals (71 percent) supporting separation in kindergarten, with 49 percent of teachers, 38 percent of parents and just 19 percent of preschool and kindergarten-aged twins in agreement. As the girls’ mother, I know better than any principal or teacher, particularly ones who’ve never met my children, whether they should stay together or not. I find it shocking that school policy could trump what I know my children need.
Studies have shown that many principals and counselors are not aware of research about twin placement, but instead make decisions from personal beliefs or misinformation that if twins aren’t separated, they won’t blossom as individuals or that it will be too hard to tell them apart, particularly identical twins. But many education experts think this twin bias is a critical failure in treating multiples fairly. “Most teachers are delighted when two children arrive and know each other, but that same teacher might have multiples come in and decide they can’t be together because they’re twins,” said Eve-Marie Arce, author of Twins and Supertwins: A Handbook for Early Childhood Professionals, and the mother and grandmother of twins. “You can’t decide until you know the child. They aren’t doing that to single children, and I suggest to teachers they don’t make arbitrary decisions.”
So is it beneficial to separate or not? The research can be summed up as probably not. Studies show that there are no cognitive benefits to separation and twins who were separated don’t perform better academically, and that in fact, it may be slightly detrimental to twins emotionally, particularly those who are very close or need each other for support or comfort. One study found that separation has the potential to lead to adjustment problems. Going to kindergarten with a twin is like going with your friend, and kids adjust better,” said Gordon. Keeping twins together might also benefit the twins socially. “Twins in the same classroom are more popular than twins that have been separated into different ones” said Gordon. “They get some extra attention.” However, there are also valid reasons to separate, like when the pair acts disruptively when together or if they vary widely in their academic aptitude.
Arce, Gordon and many other early childhood education experts and researchers firmly believe that the decision to separate should be made by the parents. “If you alienate the parent, you aren’t doing that family justice,” Arce said. “It should be the parents’ choice.” These are the people who know the children best. A more flexible policy, one that is based on what the family wants and needs, plus the individual personalities of the twins themselves, is what’s needed.
I don’t know yet if my girls will do better together or apart, but I do know that I’m determined that it be my family’s decision and not the school’s.