Early School Enrollment: Can Starting Too Young Do More Harm Than Good?

Early School Enrollment cover image
Early School Enrollment cover image

It’s an age-old problem: At what age is my child ready to start going to school? It’s a question that doesn’t have an easy answer and one that virtually everyone seems to have a different opinion on. To complicate matters further, you also have to determine how much preschool is the right amount for your child. Would they benefit from spending a year in Pre-Kindergarten? If they go to daycare, should it be structured or geared more around social growth? It’s a lot of information for parents to sift through, but some new studies are now providing families a bit of clarity.

Australia’s Landmark Study

A new study from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia compared the starting ages and performance of over 100,000 students and found that in general, those that started later tended to outperform other students. In Australia, students need to be enrolled in school by the time they turn 6 but can start as early as 4 ½. Researchers say even a difference of a couple of months can make a huge difference in a child’s social and academic development.

Month on month, there are small differences in kids’ development across the age spectrum. When you’re comparing an August and December-born child, the difference is pretty small. But when you start to add this up over six months or more, then you’re really looking at increasing differences. Not surprisingly then, there are quite big differences developmentally between four-and-a-half-year-old children and six-year-old children.”

-Dr. Kathleen Falster, University of New South Wales Study Co-author

It makes sense to reason that 6-year olds are better equipped to handle social and academic situations than 4 or 5-year olds, but what’s interesting is that this Australian study showed that the benefits continue years down the road. Children who got a later start on their education ended up being more successful throughout their school-age years.

kids start school early cover image

Can starting early hurt your child?

If waiting a year to start school benefits children, would starting too early negatively impact them? A Harvard study suggests that might be the case. The study found that kids who started kindergarten at a younger age were far more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. However, researchers have concluded that many of these diagnoses are inaccurate after looking at the ages of a large number of diagnosed kids. What may appear as immature behavior for a child turning 6 years old could be perfectly acceptable for a child who just turned 5.

Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being over-diagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school.”

-Timothy Layton, Harvard University Study Lead Author

In addition to the potential risk of being misdiagnosed (and possibly improperly medicated), starting school before a child is ready could also start them behind the 8-ball academically. Students are being expected to master skills at a far earlier age than they were 20 years ago, so if they start too early it could lead to confusion and anxiety.

American families and the “redshirt year”

In America, laws vary state by state. Most require children to be enrolled in kindergarten by the age of five but depending on the state’s cutoff date and enrollment laws, that could lead to 4-year olds and 6-year olds ending up in the same class. More and more parents are trying to avoid that issue by purposing holding their children out for a “redshirt” year, giving them extra time to mature and develop before sending them to school. The data here in America would seem to back up that line of thinking. In 2017 the National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper that showed a later start date led to higher test scores all the way through the age of 15. The results were consistent across all demographic groups, backgrounds, and situations, and are very similar to the results of the Australian study as well.

So the decision seems like an easy one: delaying when your kid starts school has long-lasting benefits and gives them a better chance to succeed right? Well, not everyone agrees with that assessment. In the Illinois state legislature, there’s a bill moving forward right now that would lower the starting age from 6 to 5. It would also mandate that all school districts have kindergarten classes for 5-year olds. Kim Lightford, Illinois State Senator who supports the bill says it’s a way for students to get a head start on their education.

It is vital for students to be in the classroom, especially at an early age. This measure allows us to make a strong impact in the lives of our children and increases opportunities for those who come from underprivileged communities.”

-Kim Lightford, Illinois State Senator

Critics of the bill say that would leave parents out of the loop when it comes to deciding when their own child is ready to start school. It’s a decision that really depends on the individual child, so forcing a mandatory start date doesn’t seem to make much sense. Most educational experts agree that even though the data shows kids who start later are more successful in school, that doesn’t mean everyone should do it. Instead, they recommend parents be the judge of when they feel their child is ready, and that answer will be a little different for everybody.

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David Rode

Dave is a middle school math teacher. He's also a musician, a community theater, dad to two amazing children, and he doesn't get a lot of sleep.

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