Delaying School May Protect Against Developmental Disorders

Life

I was my son’s age when I started school, which at four and a half years old, made me one of the youngest kids in my class.

Luckily, I was a child of the ‘80’s when kindergarten wasn’t the new first grade and the academic pressures on kids were dwarfed by modern standards.

But, times have changed. We’ve moved on and become more sophisticated. Modern kids, it seems, are more advanced. They can read and write and add and subtract at younger ages than ever before, with one friend telling me recently that second graders are mastering computer coding. Seriously?

It seems as though we are so preoccupied with whether we can teach (or train) a child, we’re not stopping to ask if we should.

With kindergarten on our family’s horizon, it is assumed by friends, family and strangers that our son will be starting his academic career in September. But, if motherhood has taught me anything it is to question everything, to remain open-minded and make informed and proactive choices.

Because, government policy doesn’t necessarily reflect the psychological and developmental needs of children and rather than moving at my son’s cheetah speed, they tend to be slow to react when scientific findings run counter to cultural expectations or popular opinion.

A 2015 study titled, The Gift of Time? Starting School Age and Mental Health found strong evidence that delaying kindergarten by one year provides mental health benefits to children, allowing them to better self-regulate their attention and hyperactivity levels when they do start school. The effect was long-lasting, virtually eliminating the probability that an average eleven-year-old child would have an ‘abnormal’, or higher-than-normal rating for inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measures.

This is powerful information, yet public education policies in western nations fail to evolve.

With diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, stress, movement disorders and sensory integration challenges skyrocketing, we need to stop and ask why.

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A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, which analyzed more than 300,000 school children found that children who were born in the last month of the recommended school year intake were roughly twice as likely to have been prescribed ADHD medication than children from the first month of intake. These are not isolated findings. A population study of almost one million Canadian children found that the youngest boys were thirty per cent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and forty one per cent more likely to be medicated.

Is this mere coincidence? Dr. Martin Whitely of Curtin University, lead researcher of the Australian study, believes, as do I, that some children are being misdiagnosed based on observations that are merely signs of normal age-related immaturity.

When we consider that the elements taken into consideration for diagnosis were factors such as whether children are distracted too easily, playing too loudly, fidgeting too much, climbing too much or interrupting too often, surely, alarm bells must be ringing in the minds of every parent of a five-year-old child.

Because, these are the traits that young, healthy children are naturally wired for.

Our focus on academics is skewing our persepctive and leaving children sitting in their seats, while simultaneously sidelining the crucial interplay of movement and social-emotional development. Young children, at least until the age of seven, need to spend most of their time playing. They need to climb, explore and move their bodies to allow normal brain development to unfold.

Through her research, Dr. Carla Hannaford has found that the same regions in the brain that are responsible for movement are the regions that are involved in higher level thinking. She suggests that there is a link between children having plenty of time for free play involving whole body movement and their ability to perform higher level thinking such as problem-solving, creating and designing, anticipating outcomes, curbing impulses, and delaying gratification.

Underpinning this is the invisible work our children are doing on a daily basis; brain integration. The integration of the right and left hemispheres in the prefrontal cortex is critical to the development of executive functions and until this process is complete, a young child will remain impulsive because it is simply beyond their ability to do otherwise.

“We can no longer limit the learning environment to sitting still, being quiet and memorising stuff.” Dr. Carla Hannaford, Author of Smart Moves

So, when is a young child ready to start formal education? Dr. Deborah MacNamara, author of Rest, Grow, Play, suggests that the answer isn’t an arbitrary age but when their brain is sufficiently developed. Typically, this will occur between the ages of five and seven, IF ideal development has been allowed to take place. However, one size does not fit all; the timeline for a highly sensitive child, for example, will add an additional two years to this process.

Scandinavian countries recognize these needs. They are famous for being among the most literate (and happy) people on the planet, while also delaying formal teaching of skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic until children are seven years of age. Research that examined the efficacy of starting formal education at age seven in Denmark and the US found that it dramatically reduced the number of students who were displaying attention and hyperactivity problems. It is proposed that by delaying school, a child’s young brain was allowed to integrate in the prefrontal areas, giving rise to focused attention and impulse control.

“In other words, maturity, not academic instruction is the answer to student success.” Deborah MacNamara Ph.D

Yet, our results driven society is pushing us to mandate teaching skills at younger and younger ages, even though there is no evidence to suggest that reading at age five leads to greater academic success. In fact, the opposite may be true; pushing a child to read before they are developmentally ready can create stress, inhibit learning and lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.

It is time to pause, to take a step back and ask, what is it that we are trying to achieve? Our rapidly changing world demands that our children will need to be able to think for themselves, shape their own destinies and be confident with a lack of externally provided framework in the future. Funneling them into a system that prioritizes following the rules, memorization, rote learning and scoring well on tests, no matter how well-meaning, may be doing more harm than good.

“What we want to see in the child is pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” George Bernard Shaw

As a mother of an almost five-year-old little boy, I firmly believe that positive change begins with brave parents asking the tough questions, in spite of the predictable criticism and resistance of naysayers. It’s our responsibility to take charge and protect our kids from the overwhelm society has created, no matter how “normal” it is deemed to be.

As Kym John Payne so eloquently explains in Simplicity Parenting, normal personality quirks combined with the stress of too much too soon can propel children into the realm of disorder. A child who is systematic may be pushed into obsessive behaviours. A dreamy child may lose the ability to focus.

Childhood serves a very real purpose and cannot be rushed without consequence.

Because, some things we do know for certain; kids need their childhood, it isn’t optional. They need time; time to play, think, create, daydream, rest and grow.

Speaking personally, our family’s path forward is unknown and that can be scary, but it is also incredibly exciting. I wish I could give you a blueprint, a cheat sheet, a defined path forward, but we all face unique challenges; from the level of family support we receive to financial considerations and our individual child’s needs. We need to uncover our own solutions but we can be there to support one another, offer guidance, tools and examples.

Not a single day passes that I don’t think about what form of education we will choose. I value education strongly, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional schooling is the answer. I am grateful to live in a society where options exist and we’ll make a conscious decision that reflects our family values and our son’s needs.

As difficult as it may be to stray from the herd, our children need us to be brave guides willing to advocate for them, to go against the grain of society in order to go with the grain of natural childhood. We need to be willing to think anew, to be conscious and considered in our choices so that we create an environment in which our children can thrive, both now and in the future.

“It is hard to swim against the current and risk the negative judgments of parenting peers. Yet, some do, and if enough begin to swim upstream, the river may change its flow.” Peter Gray, Free to Learn

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COMMENTS
  • March 06, 2018
    Jennifer

    My son turned 5 in September. The months leading up to September were really stressful-what was I going to do?? Everyone had their opinion, mostly I heard “he will be fine”. But “fine” isn’t what I want for my kids. I wanted him to love school, love learning…not be told to sit and be quiet all day when he obviously wasn’t capable of doing that yet. I held him back. I finally decided that he has one shot at childhood and when school starts it’s the beginning of institutions for the rest of his life. I have no problem with that-I just wanted him to have fun doing it. Making the decision was HARD but I never once regretted it. Not once. Now, he is excited and looking forward to K in September. I won’t be leaving a sad/scared little boy at drop off but rather an excited/ready and capable one 🙂

    • March 14, 2018
      C S

      I am a retired kindergarten teacher and at spring Kdgn Round-up we always had several parents ask us how he/she/they would know if their son/daughter was really ready for kindergarten. I told them if they had doubts, to err on the safe side. I never regarded it as “holding back,” rather as “giving the gift of time.” I can’t tell you the number of parents who have come back to me many years later to thank me for helping them feel ok with their decision. Life is way too short. We want kids to be excited about school and want to go, not dread going. And, yes, PLAY is absolutely critical for young children…for that matter, even adults!

  • March 06, 2018
    Anna MG

    A wonderful article, I am in Ireland and we are undergoing a change here of starting at 5 as opposed to 4, due to a second preschool year funded by the government. The difference in maturity, emotional capacity and even vocabulary is so evident….what really struck a chord with me is swimming against the current of society….for us, that is choosing not to baptise our son, which is very much so going against societal and familial custom. Thanks for the reminder to stay strong and hold on to ones beliefs!

  • March 06, 2018
    Karen

    Thank you for your brave and open spirit of curiosity and inquiry, Tracy. You are inspiring and encouragement and I appreciate your generosity with your research and resources.I

  • March 06, 2018
    Lisa Harris

    “As difficult as it may be to stray from the herd, our children need us to be brave guides willing to advocate for them, to go against the grain of society in order to go with the grain of natural childhood. We need to be willing to think anew, to be conscious and considered in our choices so that we create an environment in which our children can thrive, both now and in the future”.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the above, but unless we want to home school our kids, then what is our alternative? I am in WA where it is mandatory for children to be in full-time formal education from pre-primary (4-5 yrs old) and I believe that the children are expected to be able to read and write by completion of the year (before they commence year 1). This concerns me greatly as I want my child’s introduction to school to be about having fun and building confidence. But doesnt seem achievable when we are asking our kids to complete tasks that are beyond their developmental capabilities.

    Lisa

    • March 14, 2018
      C S

      I encourage you to talk directly with several PreK and K teachers at the school(s) your child may attend about the actual curriculum and requirements. Don’t depend on word of mouth…you an easily get misled and get incorrect info. If the PreK and K classes are run with good research-based curriculum and are developmentally appropriate, then “formal” education can still be very mindful of where the children are emotionally, physically, academically, etc. A classroom can still be considered “formal education,” but most good preschools and kindergarten classrooms have the children learning through play, not textbooks, worksheets, etc. Ask the teachers if you can observe a couple times. That will most likely reassure you in many ways. (Just know that if you observe in April or May, you are seeing the END of the school year and not where your child will be starting at the BEGINNING of the school year.)
      I am a retired kindergarten teacher (34 years teaching) and at the end of kindergarten the children could write sentences and short paragraphs, but it was INVENTED spelling, i.e. “bacon” might be “bkn” or “camera” might be “kamru”. Yes, the childen could “read” at the end of the year, but at all different levels. Some kids could read at a 1st grade level, some could read a good number of the sight words we learned in our pre-reading program, others could read most of the sight words and some could read all the sight words we had learned and read some basic sentences.
      All were considered aok in my book! I would use the sight words in sentences with pictures. For instance, “I can go to my (picture of a house).” Don’t be worried at all about your child having to read and write by the end of that first year. A layman’s understanding of reading and writing is a whole lot different from what we as early educators consider reading and writing to be. Enjoy your little one! Those precious years fly by!

      • May 01, 2018
        Lisa Harris

        Thank you for your reply. I’d love to read the original articles you refer to in this piece. Would you be kind enough to send them to me? Thank you. Lisa

  • March 07, 2018
    Wena

    How about homeschooling? Are you guys not looking into that?

  • March 10, 2018
    Sarah

    Lovely article Thankyou. I really appreciated the ‘going against the stream’ sentiment. I was also 4 & 1/2 when I started school & I think the things people often forget is how young we are when we are finishing high school, trying to make sensible choices about drinking, driving etc. I’d rather my kids be older & making those critical choices. I had to make the decision last year to send my 4 year old boy to school or wait & I came across the same study emphasising the ‘gift of time’. I thought that was such a beautiful expression & it really drove it home for me. The preschool teachers also asked me whether I wanted my child to survive or thrive. Now my boy has just started kindergarten (in Australia) and just turned 6 & he is so happy & confident & loving school. I definitely made the right decision. Only 6 weeks in he can already read (being at a play based preschool he had no prior teaching) and is very engaged in the classroom. So there is no weight, from my experience, that the naysayers are right in that holding back a child will make them naughty or disengaged. Hats off to those of you pushing against the stream.

  • March 15, 2018

    As a nanny, it pained me to see the burden schools place on even the youngest children. I worked with a five year old who had only a sliver of time between school, afterschool programs, and dinner-bath-bed… and in that time, instead of letting him play with his little brother, I was supposed to sit him down at a table and make him do homework (mindless worksheets). And of course it only gets worse as they get older.

    I don’t plan on sending my son to school at all. I’m excited to learn alongside him and follow his interests!

  • March 15, 2018
    Julia

    Hey Tracey,

    Love your work. My son has just turned two, and we attend Montessori playgroup a few days a week. The idea is that he will attend the preschool when he is 3, but I’m still unsure whether I will be able to leave him! He is too much fun and I cherish my time with him so much. I have also wondered if the Montessori system takes the ‘play’ out too much, as a little boy he wants to run, climb and jump! He does love going to playgroup, and his place of learning doesn’t need to be ‘everything’ for him, but I guess when he is 3, and say he is attending 5 days a week 4-6 hours a day – how much more time and energy would he have for other more physically active and playful activity? My question is more, how does the Montessori method fit in with your thoughts on natural parenting and delaying kindergarten?

  • May 21, 2018
    Lisa

    Hi,

    This topic is very important to me as I have two young daughters, one of whom is struggling with adjusting to Kindy at the moment. I worry about the toll that a “too much to soon” culture of schooling is having on children (especially my children) and it is something that I plan to write to the minister of education about. I recently read Maggie Dent’s submission to parliament, which addressed this very issue, and I felt that, while she included some important case examples, links to scientific research were lacking. In order to get the attention of those in parliament, I think any address needs to be grounded in solid research. thus I would like to ask fort your help on this. If you could kindly send me the sources you consulted in writing this article I would be very grateful. I feel drawing attention to the evidence that shows the true impact of early formalised schooling is our best chance at effecting change.

    Thank you for your help

    Lisa

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