A new study from the University of Alberta suggests it may be better to enroll your child in the first grade later than sooner.
The study says that students who entered Grade 1 at an older age relative to their classmates scored significantly better years later on tests that measure self-esteem. This is important, the study's authors say, because there is much evidence linking higher self-esteem in childhood to happier, healthier, and more successful lives as adults.
Conversely, lower self-esteem in childhood can lead to the development of a variety of emotional disturbances and an increased risk of suicide, added Dr. Gus Thompson, lead author of the study and a population health professor at the U of A.
"Given all this evidence, I would encourage parents to consider deferring school entry if the child is going to be among the youngest in Grade 1," he said.
Thompson believes the connection between higher self-esteem and the older age at entry into Grade 1 is due to a phenomenon known as the relative age effect, which refers to previous studies that showed older children generally enjoy more success than their younger counterparts when they participate in an age-grouped, competitive program or activity together.
"I think it's important for parents and teachers to expose their children to as much success as they can in order to improve their self-esteem, and holding a child back before entering Grade 1 is one of the ways to do this," Thompson said.
Published in the Winter 2004 edition of Educational Research, the study is based on analysis of more than 1,100 children in Edmonton, Alberta, where the standard age for Grade 1 entry ranges from 5 and-a-half to 6 and-a-half years old. Although the law requires school attendance, parents in Alberta are given some discretion regarding the year at which their children enter Grade 1.
Of course, for every child held back, another younger child becomes exposed to an increased risk of lower self-esteem at the opposite end of the relative age scale, Thompson noted, adding that this makes the situation difficult for policy makers.
Furthermore, Thompson said other studies have shown that parents' and teachers' direct efforts to boost children's self-esteem are largely fruitless.
"If you're always praising them, that amounts to no praise at all," Thompson said. "Constantly telling them that they are wonderful, even when they are not, does not work because children can see right through that and, consequently, lose respect for the message."
Thompson favours the development of self-confidence, and adds that there are many other, indirect ways to help a child increase their self-esteem.
"You can provide an environment in which the child feels secure, and you can try to teach them self-confidence and instill in them a love of learning by rewarding them when they succeed," Thompson said. "Definitely, you do not want to punish them for failing or expose them to unnecessary stress."
"Of course, a child that grows up in a strong family and has good teachers and good genetics will probably do well no matter how old they are when they enter Grade 1. This study just shows that if they enter at a younger age it may be a little bit harder for them."
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
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