Confirming what educators have long recognized, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Affairs shows that children who enter school when they are older do better academically than those who turn 5 right before the beginning of the school year.
The study contributes to the literature by looking at how students continue to perform throughout their academic careers, and the researchers found that those who were older when they started kindergarten continue to have an advantage and are more likely to attend college and earn a degree from an elite institution.
The researchers focused on a sample of students from Florida, with some born just before the Sept. 1 cutoff date for entering kindergarten, meaning they would be the youngest in their class, while the rest were born after the cutoff, meaning they could be almost a year older than some classmates, NPR reports. The study also shows that the gap between older and younger students is consistent across socioeconomic groups and even within high-income families.
It’s often said that in almost any classroom, there is likely to be roughly a year’s difference in students’ ages, creating instructional challenges for teachers. In the NPR report, one of the study’s authors suggests that schools consider distributing students into classrooms of older and younger students.
Some states have taken steps to address age differences. For example, because California’s kindergarten cutoff date used to be in December, that meant children were entering kindergarten when they were still 4. While gradually moving the cutoff up to September, the state also implemented a transitional kindergarten (TK) program so that teachers could focus more specifically on the needs of younger learners.
A first-year study of the TK program from the American Institutes for Research showed that teachers were spending more time on social-emotional skill development and child-directed activities than those in regular kindergarten classrooms. In that report, researchers suggested providing TK teachers with more training on how to adapt their teaching for older and younger students. A more recent evaluation this year showed that the TK model has a positive effect on English learners’ math, language, and literacy and English proficiency skills when compared with children not in the program.