In professional sports, Gladwell found that there were double the number of January born players in the NHL than there were December ones. Again, imagine coming to practice with a year’s growth disadvantage compared to other players. The older, bigger competitors tended to get more ice time, more intensive coaching and more reinforcement. Consequently the gap widened, rather than narrowed, with age.
To come back to the educational example, my last school had multi-age groupings of primary students (3-6 and 6-9). The children remained in the same class with the same team of teachers for three years. The result was a nice blending of ages and stages that allowed both the older and younger students to progress with their peer groups and by Grade 1 it seemed that most of the age related differences had disappeared. But was that really the case?
Let me jump for a minute to another piece of research. Last week, after examining test data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The New York Times reported that at some point in their lives, 11 per cent of U.S. children aged 4 to 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD. That's up 53 per cent over the last decade. A discussion on the CBC noted that there have been similar jumps in the rates of diagnosis here in Canada as well. However, last year a British Columbia study with the reader-friendly title of “Influence of relative age on diagnosis and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children” uncovered some interesting statistics when looking at trends from 1997-2008 in B.C. As is typical in Canada, the annual cut-off date of birth for entry into B.C. schools is December 31st. Consequently, the children born in December are typically the youngest in their grade. The researchers decided to determine the co-relation between relative age within a grade on the incidence of diagnosis with ADHD as well as the difference in the tendency to prescribe medication to treat ADHD between children born in December and those born in January.
They looked at almost one million children who were between the ages of 6 and 12 during the period of the study. The results are striking. Boys who were born in December were 30% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and 41% more likely to be medicated than their January counterparts. Among girls the difference was even more stark. Girls born in December were 70% more likely to be diagnosed and 77% more likely to be prescribed medication than their January classmates.
The conclusion of the study was that some late year birth children had likely been misdiagnosed based on issues surrounding maturity rather than actual behavioural issues and raised concerns about the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-prescribing.
What is the solution to this issue? Obviously changing eligibility dates won’t help. The disparity between December/January will just be moved to two other months (e.g. August/September). The real insight that both Gladwell and the authors of the ADHD study have provided us with is that as parents and educators we have to be more aware of factors such as birth month before we rush to judgment and either favour or penalize children because of accident of birth.
In the meantime, try to have your children in January or February. They will be grateful to you for the head start!