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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