by Dr. Samantha, C. Sweeney, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, fpsch.com
As the mother of two young children, the topic of school often comes up among our friends, many of whom are also parents. With Fall fast approaching and kids entering school for the first time, there is one subject that is often discussed as a source of frustration: school age cutoffs. For several reasons, many parents want to push their child, who just misses the cutoff, to start school anyway. I admit that I cringe when I hear this perspective. Whether your school’s cutoff is on September 1st, September 30th, or December 31st (as was the case in my school district growing up), my professional opinion is that pushing your child to start school early is rarely, if ever, a good idea. The cutoffs are set for a reason and they have to do with development.
As parents know, kids develop in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Some of these changes are easy to see (why are all of my son’s t-shirts suddenly so tight?? Did she outgrow her new pants within a week??), but other are much harder to judge. And while parents can do a lot to help kids develop their leg muscles as well as their brain muscles, development cannot be rushed. A child’s intelligence is completely separate from his or her emotional development. Even if your child is in the Superior or Very Superior range on IQ tests, if he or she is not emotionally ready for school, the transition will be a struggle. In order for a child to learn, a child must be able to separate from parents, follow directions, interact with peers and teachers. If your child cannot master these skills, he or she will spend most of the day upset and therefore, unable to learn. The child’s emotional center of the brain-the amygdala-will be overactive. When this is the case, the rational, logical center of the brain-the frontal lobe-cannot activate and your child cannot learn. Additionally, a child who is intelligent may realize his or her struggles more so than other students. A smart child may be able to recognize that his or her behavior is different than classmates, but be unable to contain or correct them, which can lead to more feelings of frustration.
As much as possible, parents want to make sure that their child’s first school experience is positive. Of course, this is going to be more difficult for some children because of temperament or other factors a parent cannot control. But parents can control whether or not to push their child to start school before developmentally ready. I know that some parents will say, ‘Well I started early and I turned out fine.’ Yes, but development is unique to the individual and it cannot be assumed that your child is developing the same way that you did. In addition to all of the reasons discussed above, your child would be incredibly young when entering college and one of the last children to turn 21. I think many parents can see why that might be an issue. If not, contact me and we can discuss.
Ultimately, you are the parent and know your child best, but consider the reasons for school cutoff. Intelligence, no matter how high, is not synonymous with school success. Emotional maturity is just as important and needs to be taken into consideration as well. So if you have an October baby (so close!) treasure that last year that your child gets to stay home with you, go to preschool/daycare, or stay with a caregiver. After all, before you know it, your ‘baby’ will be waving good-bye to you as he or she happily runs into school to play with friends. Enjoy these last few months that your little one gets to just be yours, because those moments will be gone before you know it.