Posted On: January 17, 2014 by Patrick A. Malone

Should Age Should Determine When Kids Start School?

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about the wisdom of holding kids back from entering school if they are among the youngest members of their class. Dr. Roy Benaroch, a pediatrician and author of “Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide,” recently weighed in on the topic at KevinMD.com.

Benaroch has been skeptical of the trend of “holding back” children with late birthdays. They’re the ones who were born in the summer and are just a few months short of the next grade cut-off. Even “60 Minutes” did a segment about parents who think it’s wise to hold their later-born kids back so that they end up as one of the oldest instead of the youngest kids in their class.

The practice might seem to be advantageous in terms of maturity, academic ability and physical ability. As Benaroch points out, because children generally progress yearly, without later switching grades, kids “held back” in kindergarten should end up bigger and stronger and faster when trying out for teams in high school.

“A good idea?” he asks.

“Recent research has shown some stark differences in children who end up as the youngest versus the oldest kids in a classroom, which gives support to the idea of reconsidering firm birthday-based rules for choosing when to start kids in school,” he says.

One study he likes looked at about 12,000 Icelandic children, grouping them by both birthdate and grade in school. The study found:


  • Mean test scores were lowest among the youngest children, especially in early grades. This gap lessened by middle school, but was still significant.

  • Children in the youngest third of a class were about 50% more likely to be prescribed medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than kids in the oldest third of the class.

We’ve been wary of overprescribing ADHD drugs (see our blog, “Boom in ADHD Diagnoses Can Lead to Overmedicating and Drug Abuse”), but this study examined a different population from the one we generally write about.

Similar findings, Benaroch says, have been reported by other researchers, so he believes it’s a true effect. “Lumping children together by age creates a disparity in abilities within a classroom, with the youngest children being put at a relative disadvantage. That seems to create a greater likelihood of medical diagnoses and treatment for attention deficit disorder.”

But, it’s important to note, he also concedes, that “It’s not known if holding back these younger kids with ADHD would allow them to become better students without fulfilling an ADHD diagnosis.”

Benaroch isn’t certain what the best approach is. Life, just like school, presents all kinds of diversity everyone must learn to deal with. As he says, “[S]ome kids in any group are going to be the youngest.”

He suggests that maybe smaller classes with a smaller age range of children would be a good idea. Maybe an individualized approach to determining which kids will do best to start sooner versus later would help — that is, not the one-size-fits-all approach of holding back every kid with a certain birthday cut-off. “In the held-back year,” he writes, “children who weren’t ready for school could get extra help with their attention abilities and other skills that will help them advance.”

But Benaroch says this could lead to other problems later on, when kids of greatly varying age, physical ability and sexual maturity are mixed together.

“I don’t have a solution,” Benaroch concludes, “but it seems like this is a genuine problem. We’d better figure out a way to work this out that doesn’t depend on more medications for the youngest kids in a grade.”

On that, we agree.

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