How holding kids back from school can increase academic success
Start them young or hold them back? It’s the dilemma facing all parents of kids approaching school age. New research shows that delaying a child’s entrance to formal schooling can have a positive impact on their academic achievement.
It’s a hot topic at playgrounds and primary school gates all over Australia: Should you hold your child back a year and allow them to enter school at an older age than their classmates?
A study led by researchers from ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education appears to have the answer.
Using data from more than 10,000 Australian students tracked over a decade, the study found those who were relatively old in their grade were more confident in their academic ability than their younger peers.
“Being young for your grade really does lead to lower academic self-confidence … even accounting for a student’s actual performance,” said the study’s lead researcher, ACU’s Associate Professor Philip Parker.
The research, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, also found that “higher self-concept” amongst older students led to them being more likely to enrol in university.
“The positive effects of being older in your grade extends not only to feeling good about yourself, it also seems to increase the likelihood that you'll apply for and get into university,” Parker said.
The role of self-confidence in decision-making
Why is self-confidence so important in an academic context?
It comes down to its role in decision-making, Parker said. “How do kids decide things like, ‘Am I going to study at university? Am I going to stick with school?’ Partly it’s through looking at their grades and their academic achievements and assessing where they’re placed, but at the end of the day that takes the form of self-belief,” he said.
Where this can become a problem is when a student’s level of confidence is based on a distorted sense of self.
“We want students to be making decisions based on the best possible information, and that means having an academic self-concept that isn’t being pushed down because they happen to be younger for their grade,” Parker said.
“What we were able to show in the study is that the reason older kids in their grade go to university in higher numbers is because their self beliefs are relatively stronger than those kids who are young for their grade.”
Bigger, smarter, more mature and emotionally ready
The growing trend of delaying a child’s entrance to school to allow extra time for physical, emotional, social and intellectual development is common among parents looking to give their kids a headstart.
And while it’s not a sure-fire recipe for academic success, holding them back appears more likely to have a positive effect than starting them early.
“When a child enters school later than their peers, you’re adding in some cases a year or more of development, and that means being physically bigger, having more maturity and a bit more experience in social situations,” Parker said.
“All these things can in some cases lead to a higher academic self-concept, which we know is an advantage … and I think parents have known this for a long time.”
However, Parker warned that the practice of holding kids back could be potentially harmful to younger students in that grade.
“I think a lot of parents don’t take into account that it only has a positive effect for the older children at the cost of the younger children in that grade,” he said.
“This self-concept advantage is what we call a ‘zero sum game’. So, if as parent you make a choice to say ‘I'm going to hold my child back’, be mindful of the fact that for some kids to get a benefit, other kids have to suffer the consequences of a lower self-concept.”
Creating a level playing field
A year-and-a-half is a long time when you’re five years old.
But that’s how big the age gap can be within a school grade in some Australian states, which have varying cut-off dates that dictate when a child can enrol in school.
In NSW, kids can enrol in kindergarten if they turn five by July 31 of that year. All must be enrolled by their sixth birthday, meaning some students could be up to 18 months older than others in the classroom.
This is why Parker and his co-researchers believe the findings of the study should be taken into consideration by regulators and policymakers.
“One of the things I worry about is that not everybody has the option available to hold their kids back,” he said.
Higher income families, for example, can afford to keep their kids in childcare for an extra year, or have one parent stay at home. But those who are less financially secure might have no choice but to send their kids to school early.
“The ability to take advantage of the system is unequally distributed,” Parker said. “I think that shows we need to be looking at having very simple, consistent and clearly-enforced rules about school enrolment.”
And while there will always be children who are young or old in their grade, Parker said the system should display a sensitivity to those who are less developed than their peers.
“I think a strict policy simplifies matters and allows you to easily identify the kids that are going to be at risk and to target resources appropriately,” he said.
“What we have at the moment is complex, messy regulation that is inconsistently enforced, so it’s much harder for us to easily identify problems and to effectively target children who might be at risk.”
As for parents faced with the question of starting them young or holding them back, Parker shies away from advocating one way over the other.
“I’m always wary of giving parents general advice on an individual child … parents are always the best experts when it comes to their own kid.”
ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, led by Professor Rhonda Craven, conducts world-class research addressing critical educational and psychosocial issues.