Are we sending our kids to school when they're too young? Parents facing the decision of whether to enroll their children in school or to wait a year should take note. A new study from Stanford University shows that kids who postponed school for a year showed dramatically higher levels of self-control than kids who enrolled earlier.
The study, titled "The Gift Of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health," was co-authored by Thomas Dee and Hans Henrick Sieversten. Dee, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Sievertsen, from the Danish National Centre for Social Research, studied Danish students. They found intriguing results.
Dee stated that "We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73% for an average child at age 11.” That simple result could mean major advantages for children. With improved attention could come improved learning, better grades, and an increased chance at being successful later on in life.
Sieversten commented on the long-lasting effects noted by the study. “We were a bit surprised at how persistent the effect was.” In fact, the effect that delaying school enrollment had on a child's hyperactivity and inattention didn't diminish over time. The effect increased. Waiting one year to enroll a child virtually eliminated the chance that at age 11 a child would have higher than normal scores when evaluated for hyperactivity or shortened attention span.
Children with inattention and hyperactivity face some major challenges in school settings. Inattention and hyperactivity weaken a child's self-control. Previous research have linked self-control levels with overall achievement. This Stanford study found that kids who had lower inattention and hyperactivity ratings also had higher school assessment scores.
In America, we enroll our kids in school a bit earlier than countries like Denmark do. About 80% of US kindergarteners are five years old. In Denmark children are supposed to enroll in kindergarten during the calendar year in which they turn six.
Enrolling children in school when they're older shows no correlation to higher test scores, so the study focused on the mental well-being of the children, instead. The study utilized the Danish National Birth Cohort, which is a large-scale study of Danish children. The study included data for children at ages seven and 11, based on mental health surveys.
By looking at the differences in children born before versus those born after the enrollment deadline, the researchers saw clear distinctions. Improvements in the mental health, inattention-hyperactivity category were consistently found, and were present in both boys and girls. “This is some of the most convincing evidence we’ve seen to support what parents and policymakers have already been doing – choosing to delay kindergarten entry,” said Dee.
It's possible that allowing kids to attend school later in life gave them more time to experience unstructured play. This imaginative play is highly important, according to developmental psychology, since it develops children's emotional and self-regulation skills. Extending a child's immersion in unstructured play may leave him better prepared with the skills he needs when he does begin school later on.
Americans have started to hold back on enrolling children in kindergarten. Whereas many children were enrolled at age five, today about 20 percent of United States children aren't enrolled in kindergarten until they are age six. School policy plays a role in this, but parents are also choosing to delay sending their children to kindergarten in hopes of their children being more mature when they are enrolled.
Dee noted that this study's results support parents' decisions to hold back on enrolling their children. “The study will give comfort to those who have done it,” Dee said. “And for those who are making the decision, it’ll give them a chance to consider the benefits.” Dee also mentioned that it's important to involve both teachers and parents in discussions about a child's school start time.
We should also remember that Denmark students who didn't enroll in kindergarten right away still had access to quality pre-K programs. That isn't always the case here in the United States. “It’s not just a question of when do you start kindergarten, but what do you do in those kindergarten classes?” Dee noted. “If you make kindergarten the new first grade, then parents may sensibly decide to delay entry. If kindergarten is not the new first grade, then parents may not delay children’s entries as much.”
What have we learned from the study? Kids need to be kids. Playtime is valuable, so encourage it in your child. More study is still needed to understand how age affects childhood learning, and those understandings can also be applied to help shape how classroom learning is conducted, too.