Story at a glance
- When you are born determines when you can enter school.
- The cutoff age can lead to ranges in age in a class that could be nearly a year apart.
- A study of children born in Finland found that children that were younger relative to their peers may be referred to specialized health care for learning disorders more easily.
The cutoff age for children to enter school is typically an arbitrary line based on the calendar or school year. While some places may set the cutoff in September, others use December. This leads to differences in ages within the same class that can be as wide as nearly a full year, with the youngest child’s birthday right before the cutoff and the older child’s birthday right after the cutoff.
This phenomenon can lead to large differences in physical and mental abilities. The difference may be clearest in youth sports, where kids in the same age group but on the early side may be bigger and stronger than kids on the late side.
A group of researchers in Finland were interested in if this phenomenon manifests as differences in school performance. They looked at the diagnosis of learning disabilities in children born between the years 1996 and 2002.
Out of more than 388,000 individuals, about 3,100 were diagnosed with learning disorders. They found that “children born in December displayed higher cumulative incidences for specific learning disorders than children born in January,” according to the paper published in the journal JCPP Advances.
This study is the first to make this connection.
“We were familiar with the effects of the relative age to the general school performance, but there were no previous studies on the association between clinically diagnosed specific learning disorders and relative age,” said Bianca Arrhenius, a physician and doctoral candidate from the Centre for Child Psychiatry at the University of Turku, Finland, in a press release.
The diagnosis of learning disorders using psychological tests does take into account the exact age of the child, according to the authors. The study’s results suggests that younger children are sent to specialized care more easily.
“This finding was surprising,” Arrhenius said. “In children referred to specialist care, the problems are typically complex. We did not expect the impact of relative age on ‘pure’ learning disorder to be so significant, given previous research findings on relative age to ADHD.”
The researchers explain it like this: “Younger children in class are, on average, less intellectually and emotionally mature than their classmates, and this likely causes them to behave and achieve below expectations for their school year level. As a result, this clustering of behavioral and academic difficulties produces proportionally higher rates of referrals to specialist services compared to older pupils in class.”
The authors suggest that there should be increased awareness of this relative age phenomenon among parents, teachers and clinicians.
“There is a risk of both over- and under-diagnosis, meaning that the youngest in the class are proportionately diagnosed so much more that the older students in the class may even be deprived of the diagnosis and rehabilitation they need,” said Arrhenius. “A more systematic screening for learning disabilities could be one approach that would even out the effect of relative age on referrals to specialized health care."
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