One Size May Fit Most, But Certainly Not The Gifted & Talented

MRIslas-Photo_smweb.jpgM. René Islas

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently published a working paper by researchers Thomas S. Dee and Hans Henrik Sieversten titled The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health (10/5/15). The well-developed research study quantifies the effects of delaying enrollment into formal schooling on the mental health of students. However, parents, educators, and policy makers must be careful not to over apply these findings for children with extraordinary gifts and talents.

Dee and Sieversten use robust data and a sound statistical methodology to generalize that delaying entry into kindergarten results in better mental health among students in later years, particularly when it comes to self-regulation. The researchers note that improved self-regulation may serve as a leading indicator for future academic success. While this is a potentially valuable finding, we must take heed of the numerous caveats and limitations of the study. It is particularly important to be cautious when making real decisions for individual children.

The foundation of the study is data from the Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC). As a result, the study is based on a Danish population of students in Danish social and educational environments. While the DNBC provides a robust trove of data, the special characteristics of the Danish social and educational environment may not translate to the experiences of children and family in the United States. As noted by the researchers, Danish children have universal pre-kindergarten by well-trained early childhood educators. This is not necessarily the case for the majority of children in the United States. The researchers also report that respondents to the follow-up DNBC tend to be more affluent families. In the United States, over 50 percent of school-aged children live in poverty or economically at-risk families. Finally, the report does not take into account children with extraordinary gifts and talents. Decades of research show that gifted and talented children often have asynchronous intellectual, social, and emotional development.

It is important to recognize the research limitations of the Dee and Sieversten study to protect from over applying the findings and adopting recommendations in U.S. schools. Policy makers are quick to act on this type of research, which seems to offer quick solutions like delaying entry into kindergarten by a year. Additionally, the research seems to propel the unfounded mythology among parents, educators, and the general public that delaying entry into kindergarten will make children stronger, smarter, and more successful in later years. Dee and Sievertsen acknowledge the “academic red-shirting” fad and warn that the broader educational research fails to substantiate this wishful thinking. However, our nation’s leaders are prone to knee jerk reactions, especially when they have the potential of reducing the cost of education.

Perpetuating the belief that delaying is always better is problematic for children with extraordinary gifts and talents and children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For the gifted, a multitude of research shows the promise of academic acceleration strategies like early entry into kindergarten. Federally funded research studies reveal that gifted children know 35 to 40 percent of the kindergarten curriculum on the very first day of entry. Imagine the potential negative academic and mental health effects of delaying kindergarten another year for these children. For the gifted, delaying entrance to kindergarten may force them to repeat nearly two years of school. Imagine the potential frustration for the gifted children, their parents, and the educators who have to manage a class with such a wide spectrum of knowledge, skills, and abilities among students.

As parents and educators know well, one size fits all policies and practices often fail segments of the school-age population. While we should not dismiss the importance of Dee and Sievertsen’s findings, we must trust parents and educators to make decisions about educational placements. Parents and teachers should base these decisions on the readiness of the individual student. This is especially true of students with extraordinary gifts and talents who can benefit cognitively, socially, and emotionally from educational acceleration strategies such as early entry into kindergarten, curriculum compacting, and grade skipping.