A Modest Proposal, or: Should You Hold Your Son Back?

Back in 2002, when I was pregnant with my first and due in October, my then-boss and I got to talking about boys’ education. He didn’t have any children, but his sister did, and he mentioned how she’d put her boys into a special pre-kindergarten preparatory program – kind of like remedial pre-school, with tutors – because they were boys born at the end of the school year, and she was worried they wouldn’t be ready to join their class with their peers. In Ontario, any child who turns four by December 31st of any given year is eligible to start junior kindergarten that year, which means that her children would start kindergarten at age three.

At the time I thought this was something wealthy parents did to ensure their offspring’s eventual place in an Ivy-league university. But, now that I have two boys with fall birthdays I think I understand what she was worried about: besides her obvious desire that her boys do well in school, there’s also the potential double-whammy of emotional immaturity relative to their older peers and the fact that her children were boys (conventional wisdom being that boys tend to be less mature than their female peers anyway) to consider. Add ’em up, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. And it’s called ADHD.

Don’t understand that fear? Using longitudinal data about 12000 U.S. students, two recent studies published this year suggest that the youngest kindergarteners in any given year were nearly 60% more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in kindergarten, and that by grade five, the youngest were nearly twice as likely to have been prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin. By taking the incidence of ADHD in the population as a whole, the studies authors estimate that nearly 1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD simply because they are the youngest in the class.

Youngest, and least mature. Most likely to need extra attention from a teacher. Most likely to be disruptive. But, also, just as likely as an older child to act in a way that is age appropriate. It’s just that the age appropriate behaviour of a just-turned four year old is hardly the same thing as the age appropriate behaviour of a nearly six year old, and it’s the behavour of the six-year old that is expected in a kindergarten classroom.

So what would happen if schools were more flexible in allowing parents to determine when and at what level their child should start school? In those jurisdictions where the age of enrollment is determined strictly by the year a child is born, a child won’t necessarily get to start when and where they’re most ready (Of course, the fact that few low-cost pre-kindergarten programs exist is a major issue for most families, who may not have any option financially but kindergarten once a child reaches school age, but that’s another blog post altogether). For boys who need a couple of extra months to mature before they start school, a flexible approach may make all the difference.

Of course, it’s not only boys who may be immature or not ready for school, and it’s not only boys who are diagnosed with ADHD, but if boys are diagnosed with ADHD nearly twice as frequently as girls (so say the statistics coming out of the US), and, apparently, so many children are misdiagnosed simply because they’re immature, then maybe, just maybe, by allowing parents to hold late-born boys back a year, we may provide those boys with the growing room they need to be better prepared for school.  And for all kids, isn’t there some logic in allowing for an approach to starting school in which the child’s readiness, and not their birthdate determines at what level they begin?

(photo credit: Woodley Wonderworks http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2908834853/)

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11 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal, or: Should You Hold Your Son Back?

  1. My goodness, Marcelle, what a simple and overlooked point. I have a couple of thoughts. First, I think kindergarten (JK and SK) is optional here, so parents can hold off, but I guess the danger is a later entry into SK when what’s needed is a later entry into JK. I feel like the school board would be open to that, but parents would have to actively arrange for it. It would be nice if a certain flexibility could be the norm, to enable parents to feel that they have more control over their children’s education and then to exercise it.

    • Thanks Carole. It is true that school attendance before age 6 isn’t mandatory in Ontario, so the choice remains (for those who so choose) to skip kindergarten altogether. But what do you do with those children for who would, as you point out, benefit from a later JK start? The school board (at least, the TDSB) is not at all open to that. Anecdotally, I know of a woman who spent thousands of dollars for testing to prove that her child, who was born in late December, was not developmentally ready for the senior kindergarten class that the board insisted he must attend. He was ready for junior kindergarten, but because he was going to be five before December 31st, she nad to enrol him in SK. It took a LOT of pushing before they relented.

      • Why not have two (or even three) entry points into kindergarten in a given year? Most children would probably start in September, but if others could benefit from starting in January or February (or even March), what’s the harm in letting them start then? It’s not like they’re going to miss key concepts that will impede their abilities to succeed in higher education.

        To get around any problems kids might have with fitting in, the school could have a dedicated class for later entry kids. That way the kids could get the benefit of attending kindergarten — socialization, starting to learn how to learn — but they would be with a group of kids closer to their (developemental) age.

        Just a thought.

      • Wow, that’s an eye-opener. I assumed the TDSB would be open to it. Later entry to JK is clearly something to work on then. I’m so glad the woman you mentioned was able and willing to advocate so strongly for her child.

      • Marcelle, I am in the fight with the school board right now to hold my child back. How did you get them to relent?

      • BB — we didn’t actually do this with our children. It was a friend of a friend who managed to get the TDSB to allow their son to register a year later. As far as I know, it was after a long campaign involving much medical and psychological testing. I’m not privy to any additional details than that.

  2. Wonderful information, Marcelle. Interesting how the sats break down that way. In Australia, apparently, some districts have rolling admission to Kindergarten, and children start school in one of four entry points (the closest to their fourth birthday). That way, they can enter with their age cohort. Sounds like a beaurocratic nightmare, but also like what is needed when systems fail to account for individual difference.

  3. Great post, Marcelle. Someone once told me when Jack was only a few weeks old that it would be in his best interest if I held him back in school because of his late in the year birthday. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought her comment was absurd!

    I have to say now, seeing Jack in JK (at not even 4) compared to boys and girls who are almost 5 (almost 6 those in SK), that there is a difference physically, developmentally and emotionally in the late birthday kids and the early birthday kids. Makes me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

    Thanks for sharing the information you found, Marcelle.

    PS: I think that the term for selectively holding back your child is “red shirting”.

  4. I always think it’s better for a child to have more success in school from the start. Holding them back from starting kinder gives them the advantage of maybe doing better because they are older, and it seems much “kinder” then letting a child struggle through kinder just because they are young.

    I didn’t realize they started kinder so young in Canada. In the US five is the typical age, although where I live the cutoff date is Dec 1st. So if a child turns 5 by Dec 1st of the school year they can start kinder. In my daughter’s class this year, she has a kiddo that just turned 6 because her parents wanted her to have an extra year before she started, and there are kids that won’t turn 5 until the end of Dec. That’s a HUGE developmental difference for the teacher to juggle!

  5. BB, were you able to held back your kid for a year? I’m having the same issue now, so I would appreciate any help. Thank you.

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