Wellbeing and Mental Health

Are you sending your kids to school too early?

José Santiago
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Want your kids to do better at school? A new study by Stanford University carried out in Denmark suggests you might want to hold off for a year before enrolling them.

The study does not necessarily prove that starting school one year later improves test scores – instead the focus is on children’s mental health.

The researchers used the Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC), a survey that includes mental health data for Danish children aged 7 and 11. The survey is huge; 54,241 parents responded to the survey for 7-year-olds and 35,902 when their children were close to 11 years of age.

In Denmark, children normally enter school for the first time in the calendar year they turn six. Researchers used census and education ministry data to observe children who were born just before and after the cut-off date to study the effects of age, taking into consideration that a difference of six to eight months when you are six-years-old is significant.

According to Thomas Dee, one of the co-authors of the report:

We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73% for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an ‘abnormal,’ or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure.

Hyperactivity and inattention are traits of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), a condition which weakens a child’s self-control and may be linked to achievement, according to prior research. According to the Stanford study, children scored higher in school assessment scores if they had lower inattention and hyperactivity ratings.

In countries such as Germany and Finland, entry into school starts relatively late – and the children do not seem to suffer from “lost time” in doing so – Finland for example, scores highly on international tests on 15-year-olds.

There are limitations to this study however. For example, children in Denmark have universal access to good quality pre-kindergarten, something that many countries, including the U.S., lack. If families don’t have this access, it may be better for the children to start kindergarten earlier.

The study raises an interesting question – does entering school at a later age allow children more time to develop through unstructured play? According to developmental psychology research, allowing children an extended period of early childhoold play (such as in pre-schools) can lead to mental health developmental gains.

Click the image below to see the starting age for primary school students around the world.


Author: José Santiago, Digital Content Specialist, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum

Image: Children wear UV rays protection glasses to watch the annular solar eclipse at a kindergarten REUTERS/China Daily

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