Don't be late for school: new research questions holding kids back

29 March 2009

Children markedly older in their year group tend to be less motivated in high school and academically behind children who are age appropriate, new research from the University of Sydney shows.

The study, by Associate Professor Andrew Martin from the University's Faculty of Education and Social Work, assessed 3,684 students at seven high schools. It challenges the relatively recent trend for parents to delay school entry, particularly for boys.

"Students who were markedly older for their year group were less motivated and not performing as well in literacy and numeracy tests than students who were within the traditional one-year age range," said A/Professor Martin, one of the world's leading educational psychologists and author of How to Motivate Your Child for School and Beyond.

"The negative effect of being older for a year group was also found for children who had repeated a grade," A/Professor Martin said.

While previous studies have looked at age and children's school performance in the early primary school years, this latest study, just published in the international Journal of Educational Psychology, is one of the first to look at the effects of students' age within a year group in high school.

"I found there is little or no evidence of advantage to being markedly older in a year group in terms of academic development in the high school years," commented A/Professor Martin.

Age appropriate students, particularly those young for their age-cohort, seemed to fare best, A/Professor Martin found. Younger-for-cohort students reported enjoying school more, fewer absences from school, being more positive about school and more likely to complete homework, with the very youngest even outperforming their classmates on some measures.

These younger students are a good comparison with students one year older than them (eg. the delayed entry students) because they are in the same year group, A/Professor Martin noted. Many of the younger children's parents would also have considered the option of holding their child back, but chose to send their child to school.

A/Professor Martin said the research suggests that in most cases on-time entry is appropriate for students.

"Schools can and should accommodate the healthy and initially wide range of variation in normal development", A/Professor Martin said. "Since these results suggest high school children generally do better staying with their age cohort, it makes sense to start them at school on time - with the school providing any necessary support if needed.

"We know early intervention has strong educational benefits - thus, entering a child on-time delivers educational intervention on-time. Indeed, the children whose parents are anxious about sending them to school, may be the very children who need to be there on-time.

"The trend to hold children back also presents a challenge for teachers, particularly in the first few years of school, who have to adapt lessons and curriculum for classes where the age range can span two years within any given grade level."

A/Professor Martin points out that delaying school entry is a reasonable consideration for some students and advises that the decision to delay a child's entry should be one based on formal assessment of the child and a clearly demonstrated need to delay. When clear, valid and assessed needs are identified, the parent is then in a position to make an evidence-based decision that will be right for the child.

Contact: Kath Kenny

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