Being Young in a School Class Puts a Child at a Long-Term Disadvantage Compared to Their Older Peers

New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, in collaboration with the Karolinska Institute and Orebro University, has found that ‘young relative age’ – being young in a school class – puts a child at a long-term disadvantage compared to their older peers.  Researchers are now calling for greater flexibility about school starting age.

The study, published today in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), looked at data from 300,000 individuals from the Swedish National Registers. The researchers found those youngest in a class were more likely to experience low educational achievement, substance misuse disorder, and depression in later life. However, younger children with ADHD appeared less at risk of depression.

Previous studies have pointed to evidence that immaturity relative to peers can contribute to an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD. Typically, a comparison is made as to whether a child shows ADHD symptoms to a significantly greater degree than to others in their year group, but this doesn’t always take in to account the potentially significant age gap between the youngest and oldest members of an age group.

Senior author Professor Jonna Kuntsi from King’s IoPPN said “The difference between the youngest and oldest member of a class can be up to 11 months. In the early stages of childhood, this is a significant difference in terms of maturity, behaviour and cognitive abilities.

“Behavioural characteristics that are normal in younger children are in some cases being compared to much older individuals, and we can see from the data that there are very real and long-term consequences to being the youngest in a class year.”

The investigators note that the negative effects of young relative age is much less common in countries like Denmark, possibly due to the more flexible approach to school starting age there.  Young children that might not be ready to start school have the opportunity to start school later, and as such are at less risk of experiencing negative side effects seen in other countries. It is a practice that the researchers say could be emulated elsewhere.

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