A new study highlights concerns about the youngest children in a class. Thankfully, there are steps parents can take to support their children's development.

By Maressa Brown
October 04, 2019
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As your child approaches kindergarten age, determining whether they're ready to start school can be challenging. You'll have to weigh a variety of factors, from your district's age cutoff to skills that are required to succeed, such as the ability to listen attentively, follow directions, concentrate during lessons, and share. Now, new research published in JAMA Pediatrics highlights a concern that parents might want to consider when deciding when to register their child for school: The youngest students in a class might be more likely to struggle with depression, ADHD, and learning disabilities when compared with their older counterparts. Here's what parents need to know.

What the Study Found

Researchers in Britain looked at data from more than a million kids age 14 to 15 and concluded that the youngest children in the class have a roughly 30 percent higher chance of developing depression compared to their oldest peers in the same class. Apart from depression, they also have an increased chance of being diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities.

The findings aren't entirely new: Previous research had associated younger relative age within the school year with consistently with poorer academic and sporting performance, as well as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses and increased risk of intellectual disability.

In the latest study's conclusion, researchers note that further research should be done to figure out what can be done to reduce these outcomes for younger students.

What Parents Can Do

Considering whether or not you should hold off on enrolling your child for kindergarten, so as to preempt these mental health challenges? Evaluating whether or not your child is ready for school should be a multi-faceted strategy, experts note. Here, a few moves they recommend.

Observe their behavior and development from a bird's eye view. 

"The most important thing you can do as a parent is to get to know your kid better," says Anatoly Belilovsky, M.D., medical director of the Belilovsky Pediatric Center, in New York City. The more objective you can be about both their academic and social skills, the better. "Your child's social interaction with peers and adults is key to her kindergarten success," says Claire Haas, vice president of education for Kiddie Academy, a national education-based child-care provider.

Talk to his or her preschool teacher. 

They'll have an especially objective view of the situation. Psychologist Lisa Damour recently told CBS This Morning, "If your child's a preschooler, you have preschool teachers who have watched your child all year. You know your preschooler, they are comparing your children to hundreds of preschoolers. We also cannot be neutral about our own children. It's just not a possibility. Teachers have actually seen your child in the classroom setting. So if you're unsure, I would say to a teacher, 'You know my kid, if she were your kid, what would you do in these situations?' And take that very seriously. Teachers are experts in child development."

Keep these "green lights" in mind.

You can feel comfortable sending your kid if she can do the following:

  • Sit still and listen to a story attentively for ten minutes.
  • Play cooperatively with others (take turns, share, resolve conflicts amicably).
  • Follow simple, two-step instructions ("Please choose a book, and then take it to your desk").
  • Ask for help when she needs it.
  • Express herself in complete sentences of at least five words and be understood by non-family members.
  • Use the bathroom on her own.

Remember that there's no perfect decision.

It can be tough not to look down the road and worry about potential pitfalls of sending your child to school too soon, but all you can do is work with the information that is in front of you in the present moment. As Dr. Belilovsky says, "Don't look for the answer, look for an answer."

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