Every parent will remember the feeling of their child’s first day of school: a muddle of emotions and uncertainties, of pride, anxiety, reflections on the swift passage of time and relentless, circling doubts. Are they really old enough? Are they ready?
These questions underpin an ongoing debate about the best age for children to start their formal education. The average American starting age of five is low by global standards, with children in most countries beginning school at six. In Finland, Denmark and Sweden, countries renowned for their robust education systems, children don’t usually start school until the age of seven.
So why do children in the USA start school so early? Are there any advantages to starting late? And most importantly, what’s best for the intellectual development and well-being of children?
Why Do Children Start School At 5?
Compulsory attendance laws in the USA vary by state. Most were implemented in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, often motivated by a desire to assimilate immigrant children, discourage child labor or produce a productive, educated workforce.
In the UK, where the starting age generally mirrors that of the US, the passing of the 1870 Education Act was driven partly by concerns over child protection (keeping children away from unsanitary conditions at home or in the streets) and partly by the need for a strong economy: legislating young children into schools freed up their mothers to join the workforce and allowed children to finish their education earlier and start working themselves.
The laws in both the USA and the UK tended to be driven by political or economical imperatives, rather than based on the educational or emotional needs of the child.
Getting Off To A Good Start
Regardless of the political origins of compulsory starting ages, there are many who argue that starting school early provides both academic and social benefits to children. Indeed, research shows children who learn academic skills in school earlier can gain an initial edge over their peers – but the advantage generally fades away within a few years.
Introducing children to formal academic work too early may actually be damaging in the long-term. A New Zealand study compared children who learned to read at five against those who learned at seven. Not only had the children who learned later caught up to their peers by age 11, they also demonstrated better comprehension and more positive attitudes to reading.
But formal education is about more than the three Rs. What about the social abilities, motivation, discipline and work habits that schools foster in students? Some argue that these transferable non-cognitive skills are just as important to learn as academic disciplines, especially in early stages of development.
Here too it seems that children who begin school later have the advantage, exhibiting better socio-behavioral skills throughout elementary school. This advantage, however – like the academic advantage displayed by those who begin school earlier – tends to vanish by the end of middle school, with prolonged exposure to common instruction allowing younger entrants to catch up to their peers.
Is Holding Back Worthwhile?
About 5% of children in the USA delay starting kindergarten each year, a practice known as “redshirting” or “holding back”. There are two prevalent theories as to why this occurs: one, that parents feel their children aren’t yet ready for the demands of school; two, that parents want their children to begin school with a physical, social and cognitive advantage over their peers.
There’s little evidence that delaying the beginning of school will provide either an academic or social advantage. Holding back can disturb the social structure of a class, however, by widening its age-span. Older students may become alienated from younger, while teachers can have trouble managing such a diversity of ages.
Some young children may benefit from the structure and social opportunities the classroom provides, while others may do better after a period of maturation. Ultimately, holding back is something that parents should judge on a case-by-case basis, depending on the developmental needs of their child.
The Power Of Play
How is it possible for children who start formal education later to catch up with – or overtake – their longer-schooled peers? Is early education a waste of time? Should kids be encouraged to stay at home until they’re seven?
In short, no. Research suggests that the environment in which learning takes place, and the manner in which it is delivered, makes all the difference. In early education, learning that’s playful and less formally structured appears to be more effective than the instructional learning that tends to occur in schools. This non-academically directed approach is often favored by preschools or other non-compulsory institutions.
So while the benefits of formal instructional education for very young children remain uncertain, it’s clear there’s a great deal to be gained from play-based schools and programs that encourage problem-solving, a love of learning and healthy socialization.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.