The Potential Risks Of Sending Kids To School Too Early

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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In recent years, it feels like kids are beginning school at an earlier age. Now, it’s more difficult to find anything but a full-day school option. Starting school early may be a good thing for some kids, but for other kids, especially kids born at the end of the year, there may be more disadvantages. Because kids born later in the school year usually aren’t at the same level developmentally, starting school too early could set them up for more challenges.

One of the challenges of starting school early is lack of emotional maturity. According to findings from Harvard, kids who are born in August and live in states with school enrollment cutoffs of September 1st are 30% more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis compared to their peers in the same grade who are a little older. While some kids do have ADHD, and the diagnosis can be beneficial in getting them the support they need, the researchers point out that the diagnosis may not always be accurate.

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that ADHD diagnoses have been steadily on the rise in the last 15 years. A report from 2015 states that 11% of children (1 in 10 school age kids) have gotten an ADHD diagnosis. That’s a 42 percent increase from 2003-04 to 2011-12. Additionally, the average age of diagnosis is seven, but one-third of the children were diagnosed before the age of six. More often than not, it was the parent expressing concern that led to a diagnosis. But again, about a third of children were diagnosed after a teacher or daycare provider expressed concern. Because of the drastic increase in diagnoses, there are questions about how valid the diagnoses really are.

The Harvard findings about starting school early highlight the fact that perhaps it’s not ADHD, but a lack of school readiness at this young age.

“Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being overdiagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school,” says Timothy Layton, lead author of the study. Layton is also an assistant professor of health care policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

If you have a cutoff of September 1st, which is the most common date, a child born on August 31st is definitely at a disadvantage. For instance, a child born on September 15, 2013 is almost six when they start kindergarten, whereas a child born on August 30, 2014 is barely five. And those summer babies are nearly a year younger than the oldest kids in the class. So there’s definitely going to be a big difference in emotional maturity.

You can see the difference between kids born at different points in the year. If you have an end-of-the-school-year baby, you’re used to seeing kids the same age doing things sooner. Mostly because they were born earlier in the year. Sometimes the differences are slight, but sometimes they’re huge. When they were babies, it was likely walking and talking. Once they reach school age, those few months could be the difference between proficiency in reading or writing.

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“As children grow older, small differences in age equalize and dissipate over time, but behaviorally speaking, the difference between a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old could be quite pronounced,” says Anupam Jena, who is senior author of the study. Jena is the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“A normal behavior may appear anomalous relative to the child’s peer group,” Jena adds. The study found that kids born in August are also more likely to be medicated for ADHD than kids born in September.

Starting school early may seem like a good idea when kids are young. It gives them the opportunity to advance academically. And when done in an age-appropriate way, early education is beneficial. But there are risks and downsides if it doesn’t meet the developmental needs of the student. As school becomes more academically rigorous, those younger kids could struggle. We’ve all seen the major academic changes early elementary school has undergone in recent years.

Kindergarten is now just as intensive as first or second grade. Kids are being expected to know a long list of sight words, mastered writing and be able to read. And that’s when they start kindergarten, not when they finish. As of 2010, 80 percent of teachers expect kindergartners to be able to read. The standards are becoming more intense, and kids starting school early are probably not ready for that level of intensity.

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Developmentally, there are things that are challenging for kids at early school age. Preschoolers are incapable of sitting still for more than about 20 minutes at a time. And yet, in school, they spend most of their day sitting. A kid who’s just turned four is going to have more trouble sitting still for long periods than a kid who is almost five. Yes, they can learn, but it’s going to be more of a challenge and may take longer. Their little brains simply can’t handle the pressure being put on them. It’s not their fault, or even the fault of the parents. Frankly, it’s a failure on the part of the system to understand how child development works.

But the thing is, many parents have no choice but to have their kids starting school early. As more parents are forced to work, they need childcare. And private childcare (including daycare) is incredibly expensive. States are realizing this and filling the need with all-day school programs. But the problem is, the programs are becoming one-size-fits-all, when the needs aren’t that cut and dry. And as they create more all day programs for preschoolers, the academic standards are likely to shift again. More children will potentially suffer, especially those starting school early.

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