Last fall, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a working paper by researchers Thomas S. Dee and Hans Henrik Sieversten titled The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health. The well-developed study quantifies the effects of predicating enrollment in 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 demonstrate 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 intellectual foundations for the study come from Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC) data. The study is therefore more indicative of Danish social and educational environments. While the DNBC provides a robust trove of information, the special characteristics of the Danish setting may not translate to the experiences of children and family in the United States. As noted by the researchers, Danish children benefit from universal pre-kindergarten offered 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. In the United States, over 50 percent of school-aged children live in poverty or come from 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 experience asynchronous intellectual, social, and emotional development.

It is important to recognize the research limitations of the Dee and Sieversten study and refrain from too readily adopting their recommendations in U.S. schools. Policy makers are quick to act on this type of research, which seems to offer quick solutions like delaying 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 broader educational research fails to substantiate this wishful thinking. However, our leaders are prone to knee-jerk reactions—especially when they reduce the cost of education.

Delaying kindergarten can be problematic for children with extraordinary gifts and talents, as well as children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For the gifted, a wealth of research shows the promise of academic acceleration strategies like early entry into kindergarten. Federally funded research studies reveal that gifted children are familiar with 35–40 percent of the kindergarten curriculum on their very first day. Imagine the potential negative effects for these children of delaying kindergarten another year. For the gifted, delaying entry may force them to repeat nearly two years of school. Such a mistake would prove terribly frustrating for gifted children, their parents, and the educators who have to manage classes 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 individual students. 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 kindergarten, curriculum compacting, and grade skipping.

M. René Islas is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the National Association for Gifted Children and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Each post in the series exists both here on Flypaper and on the NAGC Blog.

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