By: Marie Davis
As we look ahead to the start of the 2015-16 school year, there is currently a bill sitting in the Georgia Senate that would impact the lives of current and future preschool-age children. The bill seeks to raise the starting age for all incoming kindergartners. Currently, students must by 5 on or after Sept. 1 of the year they are seeking enrollment. The new bill raises that cutoff to Aug. 1 for the 2017-18 school year and July 1 for the 2018-19 school year.
Supporters of the bill believe that a lack of maturity leads to failure and behavior problems for many young learners. They feel that an extra year is needed for many to develop the physiological changes necessary for success in a structured school setting. This view is supported by a 2011 longitudinal study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Canada.
The NBER found that starting kindergarten one year later actually reduces the probability of grade retention by 3.2 percentage points by age 9 and 4.3 percentage points by age 15. The study went on to say that starting kindergarten later, “may also improve school readiness by increasing the age and therefore physical and emotional maturity, at which students first enter formal schooling.”
Lack of physical maturity can play a key role in early academic setbacks. With kindergarten being viewed as the “new first grade,” children are facing increased cognitive demands that require sustained focused attention. The inability to meet these cognitive demands can lead to a medical diagnosis such as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2013 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that found that over half of all ADD/ADHD diagnoses are done by age 6. Raising the entrance age for kindergarteners can play a significant role in curbing this trend.
Research conducted by Todd E. Elder from Michigan State University and Darren H. Lubotsky from the University of Illinois found that starting school a year later reduces the probability of being diagnosed with ADD or ADHD by almost 3 percentage points.
With the increased rigors of the kindergarten curriculum, children need to be physically and emotionally ready to meet the challenges from Day 1 and proponents of the bill feel that increasing the entrance age will accomplish this goal for all students.
Unfortunately the research is not so clear cut. Elder and Lubotsky found that “increases in kindergarten entrance ages have the primary effect of delaying the rapid learning that children experience once they begin school, especially among those from low-income households.” According to them, the effect is significant among low-income households because higher-income families are able to provide their children with academically rich preschool experiences.
With 50 percent of Georgia’s children coming from low-income families, access to quality preschool is a major issue. Educators are concerned that many of the day care programs these families can afford lack a solid instructional component. Further compounding the problem, many low-income families elect to keep their children at home prior to the start of formal education.
In light of this, Shane Jimerson, professor of school psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, makes a crucial point, “We need to consider what the child is doing when otherwise he would’ve been in an educational and enriching environment.”
Georgia does not provide a free preschool program for all children, so many students could enter school a year later with increased academic deficiencies resulting from decreased cognitive stimulation.
Lawmakers, parents and educators must carefully weigh the pros and cons of the proposed bill and the advice of Elder and Lubotsky, “If the goal of policy is to raise the achievement of the children most susceptible to falling behind, a policy focused solely on entrance ages is likely to fail since at-risk children receive the least investment prior to entering school.”