Racism in school
In Australia, one in three students report suffering from racial discrimination. Source: Shutterstock

Enrolling children into school too early may have dire consequences for their emotional and mental development.

A new study by Harvard Medical School revealed that children who start the school year earlier than their peers might be at risk of being misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

ADHD is a mental disorder typically characterised by symptoms such as hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention.

Researchers found this to be true among children born in August who start school in the US where enrollment is cut off at a September 1 birth date.

The study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, shows that “children born in August in those states are 30 percent more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis, compared with their slightly older peers enrolled in the same grade.”

Speaking to The Harvard Gazette, study lead author Timothy Layton, Assistant Professor of Health Care policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School said, “Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being overdiagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school.”

Hence, for states with a September 1 cut off, children born on August 31 will be nearly a full year younger on the first day of school compared to a classmate born on September 1, said the report.  

A younger child may be more fidgety compared to their older classmates and have more difficulty concentrating in class, which may lead to a medical referral and a diagnosis and treatment for ADHD.

The researchers added that an 11- or 12-month difference in age could lead to “significant differences in behaviour”. This finding is noteworthy as ADHD diagnosis and treatment rates have climbed dramatically over the last 20 years.

Researchers note that an 11- or 12-month difference in age could lead to significant differences in behaviour.
Source: Shutterstock

However, the study’s senior author Anupam Jena said the rise in ADHD incidences are complex and multi-factorial, and arbitrary cut off dates are likely to be one of many variables driving this phenomenon.  

Some parents may feel the pressure to start their children’s schooling at a younger age to help them succeed academically, but a Stanford study suggests that starting formal education at an older age may be more beneficial for children.

The study, co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Thomas Dee, found that “children who started kindergarten a year later showed significantly lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity, which are jointly considered a key indicator of self regulation. The beneficial result was found to persist even at age 11.

“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11,” said Dee in the report, “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 behavioural measure.”

The report highlighted that “In the psychology realm, the measure of inattention and hyperactivity – the mental health traits behind ADHD – effectively reflects the concept of self regulation.

“A higher level of self-regulation, which describes a person’s ability to control impulses and modulate behaviour in attaining goals, is commonly linked to student achievement.”

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