Warning: This Is Why Starting School Young Can Negatively Impact Your Child’s Mental Health

Updated: Apr. 23, 2021

Before sending little ones off to kindergarten, consider their age in relation to their peers. It could make a huge difference in their mental health.

schoolMonkey Business Images/ShutterstockEven if your pre-schooler is precocious—or possibly a genius, you might think twice before signing her up for kindergarten early.

That’s because children who are younger than their peers (who are closer to the minimum age cut-off for starting school) tend to get lower grades and require more special education assistance than their older peers, according to new research from University of Exeter Medical School in England, and one of the first studies to look at how starting school on the younger side may impact a child’s mental health.

The study, published in the journal Child Care, Health and Development, used data culled from an existing study called the “Supporting Teachers and Children in Schools Study” (STCS Study), which included 2,075 elementary school students (ages five through nine) from 80 different schools in Devon, England. The STCS study included a parent- and teacher-reported “Strengths and Difficulties” questionnaire, which assessed the tendency of the students to experience negative emotions such as worry and fear, to have poorer relationships with their peers, and to be more likely to encounter issues with behavior and concentration. (Watch out for these signs your child may have anxiety.)

Scores from the questionnaire indicated the mental health of the kids, where a higher “Total Difficulties” score translated to poorer mental health. What the researchers found was that the younger a child was relative to his or her peers, the more likely he or she was to have a higher “Total Difficulties” score, indicating poorer mental health.

The reason, according to the researchers, may be that keeping up with older peers may be one-stress-too-many for certain children, especially those with learning disabilities and those born prematurely.

Although the STCS study also included a parent- and teacher-reported “Pupil Behaviour” questionnaire to assess the students’ behavior, and a student-reported “How I Feel About My School” questionnaire to assess the students’ happiness, no significant relationship was found to exist between relative age and childrens’ behavior and happiness in school. This may be due to the fact that the schools in the study had strong supports in place for their students, including small-group learning, which may have contributed to more happiness and better behavior among even the youngest and the most academically challenged students.

These findings could offer parents some important guidance regarding when to enroll a child who is on the cusp of a grade’s minimum age cut-off, according to researcher, Anna Price. Price was inspired to explore the connection between relative age and mental health because she felt that her own son, who has learning disabilities and whose birthday fell just before the minimum age cut-off for his school district, would be best served through home schooling.

The findings may also help educators to provide the necessary support for children for whom this is an issue, according to Professor Tamsin Ford, FRCPsych, PhD, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who oversaw the research.

Find out if your school system may be damaging to your children—and the 13-plus things your child’s teacher isn’t telling you.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest