Kids who are the youngest in their class are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders, a new study shows. Here's what parents need to know.

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Parents want to set their children up to succeed in school. But they may deal with an extra dose of worry if their child is among the youngest in the class. At young ages, a year or even several months can make a big difference in a child's development, and a single grade can contain a wide range of abilities. 

Beyond where kids are developmentally, many parents and researchers are concerned that younger kids may be seen as "behind" when they're in fact developing as they should. This so-called "relative age effect" comes up when teachers or other school professionals evaluate children by referencing them with their peers. A younger child in a grade may be out of step with their classmates, but still be learning and growing on target. 

A study from Finland published earlier this year explains that the relative age effect showed up in learning disorder diagnoses. Looking at all children in Finland's national register born between 1996 and 2002, the researchers found that children born in December were much more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder than those born in January by the age of 10. The study explains Finnish children "start primary school in August of the calendar year that they turn 7. The oldest children, born in January, are 7 years and 7 months and the youngest, born in December, are 6 years and 7 months."

The authors conclude that teachers could be over-referring the youngest children for further evaluation. Though they note that the diagnostic process does take into account the child's exact age, which should prevent faulty comparisons from driving diagnoses. 

Parents whose children are referred for evaluation shouldn't worry too much, says Diana Riser, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychology at Columbus State University. "There isn't a worst-case scenario," she says. Either the assessment will come back normal and parents can be reassured, or a learning disorder will be diagnosed early and the child will have access to specialized help. Beyond that, she says, getting a referral from the school can be much cheaper than arranging a private evaluation. 

The researchers in the Finnish study also raised the possibility that learning disorders are underdiagnosed in children on the older end of their class. Perhaps instead all children should be evaluated for learning disorders at a particular age, suggested Jonna Kuntsi, Ph.D., in a response to the Finnish paper published in the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

In addition, the authors suggested that delaying the start of school for the youngest students who may not be developmentally ready to attend could be another option. Parents in the United States often have some latitude about when to enroll their children in kindergarten. Some delay entry for kids born close to the school year cutoff, a process known colloquially as "redshirting."  

Ultimately, it's worth remembering that teachers are equipped to educate kids across the age spectrum in a given year, and being the youngest in the class isn't an ironclad prediction about how school will go.