YOUNGEST IN HIS CLASS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
YOUNGEST IN HIS CLASS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. Our only son was born in August, which means that in most schools he will be the youngest or nearly the youngest in classes. Many teachers and schools imply that always being the youngest will make things harder for him throughout the school years. True?

A. Chronological age doesn’t do justice to individual differences in development. Children of the same age show a wide range in height, weight and abilities.

Even within a single child, some kinds of development may move more rapidly than others. For example, a child may be bigger and taller than other children of the same age but clumsier and no more mature. I call this situation the “big child” syndrome – a problem because everyone expects more than is reasonable and the child suffers because of inappropriate developmental expectations.

While you can’t know the outcome for sure, taking a look at your child’s development and pace of growth may help guide your decision about whether to hold him back until the next school year.

If he is smaller than children his age, that may be an added disadvantage for him as the youngest child in the class. Height and weight are easy information to obtain, and growth curves over time are fairly predictable, at least until puberty.

It would be helpful to know about your son’s social maturity relative to his peers’. The preschool teacher should have a good perspective, using the other children in his class as points of reference.

If he is immature when compared with children with similar birthdays, that might affect your decision – even though a child can rather suddenly catch up in this area.

Also, you’ll want to consider how the school and the parents in your community handle this issue. If all the other parents of the youngest children retain them so that they can be the oldest in the following year, then your child is likelier to be isolated as the youngest unless you do the same.

Recently more parents have delayed their children’s entry into kindergarten, often with the hope that they are giving them a competitive edge, particularly in later years.

Many children have little to lose and perhaps much to gain from such a delay. In response to standardized statewide testing, many schools are introducing academic curricula originally designed for older grades that are inappropriate for younger children. These may turn them off from learning and interfere with how younger children learn.

Yet for truly gifted children – children who are cognitively ahead of their own chronological age – delaying entry to kindergarten may exact a price.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.