Youngest Child in the Classroom? Is That a Problem?

“Youngest child in the classroom” can be a difficult label to wear. It’s part luck and part cut-off date that makes it happen.  It’s not that cut-off dates are special. They’re just like any other dates on the calendar. They just happen to be a random day schools choose as the final day in the year a child can advance to first grade.

In the United States, for instance, September 1st is the current cut-off date for most elementary schools. That means your child has to have turned 5 on or before September 1 to be eligible for kindergarten. If your child just happens to turn 5 on  September 2, you’ll have to wait another whole year before you can send your child to kindergarten.

Because of cut-off dates, if your child just happens to be born on August 31, she may very well end up being the youngest child in her class. By the same token, if your child is born September 2, she is likely to be the eldest child in her class when she finally does go into kindergarten. She’s going to be six for most of the year of kindergarten, while many of her peers will still be five.

Is a child of five very different from a child who is five years and 11 months-old or six years-old? This the question that parents with children born in August or September may want to consider. The age gap may mean more now than it will later on. To understand this, consider the difference between a 35 year-old and a 36 year-old. Most of us see them as pretty much the same age.

Cut Off Dates

Now think of the difference between a one year-old and a two year-old. The two-year old has reached milestones that the one year-old has not. He has more teeth. He walks securely.

The gap between a five year-old and a six year-old is not quite that big. But that gap can still be a concern for parents, especially if the child seems immature for his age. A recent article appearing in, ADHD or just immature, underscores one way the cut-off age gap can affect children.

The article detailed a study in which younger students (born in August) were more likely to be diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD than the older students born in September. This study was from Taiwan where the cut-off date, similar to the U.S., is August 31.

Happy Students

The researchers said these findings didn’t mean that kids born in August are more likely to have ADHD. Rather, a younger child’s lack of maturity may make ADHD symptoms more obvious. The lead author of this study, Dr. Mu-Hong Chen said, “Our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade when diagnosing ADHD and prescribing medication to treat ADHD.”

I was intrigued by this study and the finding that children almost a year older were less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. To me, this said that children learn a great deal about controlling their impulsive behavior over the course of 11 months. I wondered if children who were pushed ahead, becoming youngest children in their classes, struggled with their behavior and their academic work.

To that end, I interviewed people who were youngest in their classes, growing up. What I found is that with very few exceptions, for the most part, youngest students were/are invested in trying harder and set out to prove themselves every bit as capable as their classmates.

I considered whether trying harder were a Leo trait, something to do with being born in August. But the people I interviewed were from all over. Some were from countries where December 31 was the cut-off date. Some were from states where October 1st was the cut-off date. It didn’t seem to matter. All of these children were determined to show they were no different than their (older) peers.

Take Omri Rose, for instance. Omri told me there was absolutely no difference at all between him and his older classmates. “No difference,” he said. “Not socially and not academically. I was the same, did the same, as everyone else in my class, all through school.”

Unlike Omri, Jesse Harrison, CEO of Zeus Legal Funding, did feel different, but it worked in his favor. “I was one of the youngest in my class. I didn’t get picked on, but I was always known as the ‘cute’ one. I think everyone felt bad for me.

“I did not have trouble with the school work. In fact, I did better than most of my class. Being the youngest in the class made me realize nothing is impossible and even when everyone around you doesn’t believe in you, you can achieve anything as long as you believe in yourself,” said Harrison.

Raising Hands in the Classroom

Up to a point, being the youngest in her class didn’t make a difference to Shelly Mullins. Until it did. “It never affected or bothered me until my classmates started turning 16. They were going out and having fun almost a full year before I was. Other than that, it never came up,” said Mullins, an Entertainment Publicist and President of ProMO Image.

While Omri, Jesse, and Shelly managed just fine, their experiences differed at some point. One felt not at all different, one felt pitied and protected, while the third never noticed the difference until she was in the thick of adolescence. But they all did just as well as their peers.

Katherine Gauthier was the youngest and usually the smallest in her class, having been born two days before the deadline. She sees herself as a success in her work as a life coach at House of Infinity, and says that while, “age had no bearing on my success,” personality and determination had everything to do with getting ahead.

Lauren Seward, Marketing Assistant at Charles Communications Associates, said her parents let her start kindergarten though she was more than a year younger than most of the kids in her class. They’d changed the cut-off date to an earlier day just that year. Of their decision, Seward says, “I suspect they chose wisely, because I never experienced backlash being the youngest in my grade.

Raising Hands

“It must have been a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, but because I was put into a pool with bigger fish I grew mentally and emotionally at a faster rate than the others in my grade. As a result, even today when people find out my age (now 22) they expect me to be much older.

“I wouldn’t say I had any trouble with my peers until it came down to getting my driver’s permit/license (and later, going out to bars). Everyone else around me had this access and I was left at home. I adjusted and grew used to getting out of the house by paying friends’ gas money or riding my bike in the meantime.

“In general, I would say being the youngest in my class taught me to not expect what I thought I deserved as a result of my age (and what those my age achieve), but as a result of my skill level. Now, while I’m just beginning my career I feel I have a strong vision of who I am as a professional, and not just as a ‘recent college graduate.'”

Bob Helbig asked his daughter Tess how it felt to be younger than her peers. Tess is 12 and in the 7th grade. “No one’s ever rude to me about it. It doesn’t change my learning or how I play sports. I’m learning the same skills as everyone else. I’m as good as them because I’m learning the same things.”

Alexander Star, a recording artist, said the cut-off date for kindergarten class was September 30, while he was born on September 26. “The school advised my parents to keep me back a year so I wouldn’t be so much younger than my classmates, but they chose to enroll me anyway.”

Star didn’t really feel like the age difference was a big deal. He only noticed it at birthday parties. Still, he says a lot of it is about the kind of person he is. “When you learn to be confident in who you are, you leave little for people to question or make fun of.”

Different Cut Off Date

Not everyone had it so easy. Take Jamie H., blogger at Toys in the Dryer, who moved with her family to a different state with a different cut-off date, making her automatically a year younger than her classmates from first grade and on.  For Jamie, the class work wasn’t a problem, but she struggled in other ways. “Being a whole year younger than my classmates meant I was not as strong or as coordinated as my peers. I dreaded gym class and physical exams.”
Still, things worked out well in the end. “As I got older, I took pride in being young and smart. I skipped my senior year of high school and started college when I was 16. I graduated college and became a pediatric intensive care nurse just after I turned 21. All in all, I don’t regret being ahead of my age in school,” said Jamie.

Boredom Is Worse

Dr. Murray Grossan was an overachiever, having graduated high school at 15 to start college at 16. He wasn’t going to let his son wait a year because of the cut-off date, even though he was small. “I don’t see any harm as a result. The worse problem is to have someone bored in school,” said Grossan.

“We nearly had an educational disaster through a clerical error. Bruce had been placed in regular class and not in Advanced (AP). He was ‘sick’ daily and his mother had to take him home several times a week. Finally, the clerical error was corrected and he was placed in advanced. No more tummy troubles and eventually a PhD from MIT.

“No question that he could have become a serious truant because of boredom.”

For Jennifer S. Brown, a writer with a book coming out in April, the topic of cut-off dates is a passion. “My son was born August 23, and my daughter August 25, in a town with a September 1 cut-off date. My son is quite small for his age—he’s always been the smallest in his class, and he’s not super outgoing. Yet when he was in preschool, I asked his teachers if they thought I should hold him back a year or send him to kindergarten when he was five (five years and one week). They encouraged me to send him, so I did

“What has surprised me most is how many people want to tell me what a mistake a made. All through elementary school, parents couldn’t believe I wouldn’t hold my son back to give him an advantage later (interestingly, no one said a word when I sent my daughter on schedule as well; “it’s different with girls” I was told over and over). So many people “red shirted” their sons, and for a while, I was concerned, though his teachers always said he was in the right place.

“My son is now in middle school, in seventh grade. And he’s still the shortest one in his class. However, his grades are not only stellar, but he was one of ten sixth-graders last year (out of a class of just over 400 students) who was permitted to skip sixth-grade math and go directly into seventh-grade advanced math. This year, as a seventh-grader, he’s in Algebra and loving it.

“I am grateful for those teachers who encouraged us to NOT hold him back; had he been a grade behind, he would be absolutely bored in school. Today, no one questions our decision to send him on time. My daughter, as well, is doing great in school. I feel so strongly that this is a decision that should be made between parents and teachers and that parents shouldn’t be swayed by peer pressure.

You Know Your Child Best

“You know your child best; go with your gut on whether he or she should be held back or not. This is such an individual decision and one size absolutely does not fit all.

Hardly anyone I interviewed felt being pushed ahead was a mistake. Leora Hyman was one of the exceptions. “I was youngest, or second to. I was close to the cut-off and was pushed ahead. My mom now feels it was a mistake.

“I was immature in many ways, but it was masked because I was friendly and popular. I struggled as a student. Always. It might have been learning issues, or immaturity. I was never tested for anything,” said Leora.

“Fixed Mindset”

Another exception to the rule was Tracy Cutchlow. “My teachers persuaded my parents to move me from a 4-year-old kindergarten to first grade. I also was born in late August, so I was often two years younger than everyone else in my classes. My parents didn’t love the idea. But the principal told them that every child must deal with a handicap of some sort, social or otherwise, and this would be mine.

“Being the youngest felt like a badge of honor. ‘You must be so smart,’ I heard over and over. However, it was a badge I soon became afraid to lose. I worked long and hard, to very high standards. I would not speak up in front of people, for fear of being wrong or otherwise looking foolish. I began to do only things I already knew I would be good at. My innate level of persistence turned into perfectionism.
“Perfectionism makes me a great editor. It also has been pretty damaging in my life. When you’re afraid of making mistakes, you give up easily. When you’re afraid of revealing your flaws, you don’t get vulnerable enough with people to connect deeply. This is, in Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s words, a ‘fixed mindset.’ You believe that you can’t change how smart you are. So you are constantly worried that you’re being judged, that you’re coming up short. Mistakes are too risky. They reveal your flaws, and those flaws are permanent. You try to prove yourself over and over. Essentially, your self-worth comes from without instead of from within. That has profound implications in every area of life.
“In the past two years, I’ve finally become fully aware of all this. I’ve done a lot of work to regain my balance. Now I speak about it (yes, speak! in public!) to parents and teachers. There are practical ways we can foster a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset, in our children. We can guide our children to see, think, and act with a healthier perspective from the start. That’s life-changing — whether they’re the youngest in their class or not,” says Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

Unlike Tracy, Adrienne Yaron didn’t see getting pushed ahead as a challenge. “I was ahead of the class and pretty bored anyway, so I can imagine being in a lower class would have been much worse. Socially, I hated the kids in my school, but I don’t think it would have been any different if I had been with my age group. I was still the geeky brainiac.”

Youngest Child Pride

For Pam Bloom’s family, starting children early in school was a mark of pride. “I was born in October and was always one of the youngest kids in all my classes. I was very competitive academically. In first grade, we advanced reading based on a color group. First red, then blue. I made sure I was the first to advance in every color.

“My grandfather changed both my mom’s and my aunt’s birth certificates to enroll them earlier too. Both were high achievers.”

The bottom line? You have to know your child. But that having been said, in most cases, kids pushed ahead do just fine. The struggles they experience are, for the most part, usually limited in nature and are outgrown by high school. No matter what you do, things generally work out for the best.

It’s a good thing to know.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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