Too Young 

If you don't want to see you child stymied by the abstraction
of upper-level math and physics courses then don't send him
to school when he will be one of the youngest members of
his class.  "Red-shirt" him so he can enter school as one of
the older members of his class.  Sending him to school early
may seem like a good idea now, but I will always recommend
that you allow him to compete from a position of strength and
not from a position of weakness.  He and I will both thank
you for that decision.  And he will have a much better chance
to experience the Joy of the Struggle.

I am not suggesting that a child who is old enough to start school 
should be held back.  Only that children (especially boys) who are 
young because of a late summer/fall birthday are far better off if they 
are not placed in school until they are a year older. 
 
 

 

     As with a lot of topics that I feel compelled to address as a professional I approach the topic I am going to write about 
here with great trepidation.  The reason for this apprehension is that the subject is extremely sensitive.  It is for this reason 
that I begin with this caveat: I am not a psychologist or sociologist, and I am not even an economist or any other kind of 
professional data collector/interpreter.
 Everything I have to say on the subject of the age that students should begin school is based on my 28 years of
experience teaching mathematics to middle school students.
     Until recently there has been a movement to enroll students in school as soon as a school would accept them.  Some of
the reasons for enrolling students in school at a young age have to do with economics.  The working poor, families that 
have a single, working parent, and families that have both parents working need to have their children in school as soon as
possible so the parents can work without having to be burdened with the expense of day-care.
     On the other end of the economic scale, families that consist of parents who are professionals, and families that are
wealthy enough to be able to afford good day-care, or those that can afford the luxury of a stay-at-home parent also
wanted their children in school early.  Their reasons were not economic in nature.  Their reasons were generally one or 
more of the following:
          · They bought into the myth that getting children into structured classrooms early would somehow give
              them a leg up on other children.
          · They had been brainwashed by family and friends that their child seems so much brighter than other 
              children their age.
          · There is some status in being able to say that their child is not only going to school at a very young age,
              but that he is thriving in classes with older children.

     Many schools had no problem admitting students into pre-kindergarten, and even all day kindergarten, even though the
students were a year or more under age.  We seem to have forgotten that pre-kindergarten was originally developed to
provide children from lower socio-economic families with a year prior to kindergarten to get their children prepared for
school.  It was determined that children from more advantaged families got their school readiness from their parents and 
older siblings, and from the more enriching activities that more affluent families have always provided for their children, 
from birth through college.
     Recently the national trend of early placement has gone out of vogue.  (I am personally ecstatic about that).  The term 
for holding children out of school so when they begin they are one of the older children in their class instead of one of the 
younger, is called ďRed-ShirtingĒ.  That term has been used in reference to sports for many years.  And the tactic of holding
an athlete back for an additional season of eligibility when he is bigger/stronger/faster has been used for many years in 
sports.
     In any event, parents of children who have been placed in school early will almost always tell anyone who will listen how
well adjusted their child is and how well he is doing in school.  And very often they are correct in their diagnosis of the 
situation.  The problem that I see occurring doesnít appear until around 6th grade.  The problem is with the younger 
studentsí inability to deal with math topics that their classmates are ready for, but they arenít.  You just canít rush the 
developmental readiness that is required to master the abstract concepts that are prevalent in the mathematics beyond 
arithmetic.
     Itís unfortunate that a studentís mathematical developmental readiness canít be easily discerned as his physical 
development can be.
     I have seen it every year of my long career teaching Algebra and Geometry to middle school students.  The number one
reason an otherwise successful school student is unable to keep up in math is because he lacks the developmental 
readiness to be able to do it.  No amount of dedication or outside tutoring can completely eliminate this deficit.  What 
usually happens is that these students never get a chance to catch up with the math skills they need for mastering the 
more rigorous high school math and science courses.  And they often stop taking math and science courses as soon as 
they are allowed to do so, or they suffer with low/failing grades.  They almost always wind up hating math and/or science 
for no reason other than the frustration that goes along with their inability to master topics that the other students in the 
class are able to handle.
     I believe that it is essential for students to be developmentally ready for the math topics that are being taught.  The case
can always be made that a student can still have a great life even if he never masters advanced math topics.  That 
comment is usually proffered by parents of students who were started in school too young resulting in a student who canít
master advanced math topics because of being developmentally unprepared for the task.  These students are ultimately 
denied the opportunity to be successful in math related professions that they otherwise may have preferred.
     Now that more and more families are ďred shirtingĒ their children, those who donít feel that their children are 
disadvantaged because they have to compete with older children are crying foul because their children are now in classes
where the majority of the students are 6-months to a year older than their children.   In my humble opinion, older is always 
better.  Even if that means holding a too young student back in one of the early grades.  As a society we canít afford to lose
the mathematical talent that young students possess by having them enrolled in school before they are ready.

                                                                   Data from several 7th grade Pre-AP Algebra classes

The data graphed at the right is compiled from
several past 7th grade classes.  The horizontal
axis represents the relative age of the students
where 1 is the youngest and 17 is the oldest.  I
use these numbers to indicate the situation (there
is a 17 month difference between the ages of
youngest and oldest student in the class - this is
typical).  The vertical numbers represent each
students relative level of mastery without actually
giving his actual grade.

The graph at the left shows a total of 37 students
who represent a random sampling of 7th grade
Pre-AP Algebra students who have matriculated
through the Academy in recent years.  As you can
clearly see the trend indicates that the younger
students generally achieved lower levels of
mastery than their older classmates.  There are a
few outliers.  These are the few younger students
who achieved at levels greater than others who
were at or near their age.

                                                                                                                                                                Follow the link: Joy of the Struggle