(Late)Birthdays and Middle School Success

In Andrew Solomon’s ground-breaking Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Solomon investigates, among other fascinating subjects, the mysterious world of Canadian youth hockey teams.  What has this to do with school success?  Solomon discovers that kids recruited to play hockey in prestigious youth leagues due to observed early talent are selected in part because these agile young athletes are simply older than their peers (and not necessarily more talented).

I’ve been waiting for (years) now for this fact to resonate with parents and educators EVERYWHERE!

Yet there’s been little follow up in education circles…This is probably due to the simple fact that schools cannot do much about kids’ birthdays.  There will always be a cut off date, and some kids (like those with birthdays this month and last) who will be oldish for the grade, and some kids who will be youngish.  Life just isn’t fair.

Yet it matters…It matters socially, emotionally and academically, and it matters especially in the awkward middle years when kids perceive very clearly how they rate in comparison to their peers in terms of academic success. So, what’s a parent, tutor or teacher to do?

  1. If your child is struggling academically or has discipline issues and is young for the grade say something–mention this fact to the classroom teacher, principal and guidance counselor. Especially if your child is among the very youngest in the room.  Compassion and understanding can go a long way and educators may not know to think about student age, especially in middle school.
  2. Try not to engage in exceptionalism–that way of thinking that says, my daughter is so bright it will not affect her that she is the youngest child in her class.  It really may…Even kids who are early readers may have issues with handwriting, spelling, stamina and following directions–simply because they are young.
  3. Talk to your pediatrician about maturity and attention issues before you begin evaluating for issues like ADD.  Of course, a child could be young and have ADD-type issues, but it does make sense to make age a part of the conversation.
  4. Avoid judgment.  Your son may not read on grade level in third grade, but he may become a fantastic reader by the end of sixth grade.  Give him time, and don’t remind him of his slow start by commenting on how he resisted reading at first.  These characterizations stick with kids and do affect self esteem.
  5. Encourage stamina more than correctness at home in tasks that require writing.  Many parents worry that their kids are not learning to spell and punctuate correctly by middle school.  Writing is a highly complex task that involves small motor skills as well as brain development.  Stamina and fluency must be in place for kids to grow as writers.  Correctness can and will be taught in school. (I put the above sentence in bold because I want to say this all the time to everyone I know.)  Stamina is the perfect place for parents to intervene.  It requires kindness and space and time and is a critical component of school success.  Conversely, when parents give feedback about multiple errors, kids feel more reluctant to share, and can feel ashamed of what they have not yet learned.  Many kids spell common words incorrectly–relying on ear more than visual memory.  Common, “small” words are sometimes harder to learn to spell (and read) than longer words that have more distinct visual cues.
  6. Teach your child that thinking hierarchically about school success is not your approach.  No one is actually “the best” reader or writer in the class.  Language skills are highly personal.  With effort and through increased stamina, your child will continue to explore and develop his talents and abilities throughout his lifetime.  By senior year, no one will care (or recall) that your son was not in the top reading group in sixth grade!

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