A new study has questioned the decision to allow children to start school earlier than their peers. According to the researchers, children that are younger than their peers when they start school are more likely to develop mental health problems.
The paper titled Examining the psychological and social impact of relative age in primary school children: a cross-sectional survey was published in Child: Care, Health and Development, June ,2017.
The authors examined how the age of over 2000 children across 80 primary schools impacts on their mental health.
According to a statement by child psychiatrist and co-author of the study, Professor Tamsin Ford, ‘’being relatively younger could be a tipping point for some, but certainly not for all, children. For most, it would just be something for the teacher to be aware of but for children with other needs or who were born prematurely this difference could be significant. Awareness of this issue among teachers and educators means measures should be in place that could help mitigate this effect and get the best outcome for children’’
All parents eagerly anticipate the time their children would begin school. Depending on the location, the age a child starts formal education vary widely. In view of this, some parents have often wondered if the child is starting school too early or too late.
In view of the impact a child’s age may have on his academic performance and well-being, it is important to carefully weigh the pros and cons of starting school early. According to one study, delay in starting school is associated with poorer academic performance. So, the initial boost an older child has often evens out as children move to higher classes.
Why do parents try to start their children early? This is partly based on the belief that giving a child an early start may lead to improved academic performance in the future. Also, many parents now have limited time to look after their kids, so preschool is the only viable alternative.
In contrast to western countries, many parents in Nigeria send their children to preschool by 18 months. What that means is that some kids may commence primary school education at the age of 4 years and end up with children that are 2 years older than him.
The 2-year gap between age 4 and 6 is really huge in terms of emotional, mental and physical development. This exerts additional pressure on the child who may find himself in the bottom half of the class. Additionally, teachers that do not give consideration to this age difference may inadvertently become harsh to them in an attempt to push them harder. This may affect the child emotionally. Mrs Jane Olatunji-Hughes, a psychologist expressed this concern in an interview with Vanguard. She said ‘’the trouble is that people believe that by pushing children harder, they will get better results. This is counterproductive.’’
Common features of poor mental health in Children
According to a review of 10 studies involving 9713 children from 6 African countries, one in 7 children have some mental health difficulties and one in 10 may have a specific mental disorder. The common problems identified are emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and conduct disorders.
Because children find it difficult to express themselves, they may not readily tell you they are ill. Therefore, every parent, caregiver and teacher should recognize the signs of poor mental health in children. These include:
- Changes in mood-Are there any feelings of sadness? Is this affecting the child’s relationship with others?
- Fear or anxiety- Is the child unduly fearful. For example, refusing to sleep alone in his room or bed?
- Behavioural changes- Has his or her behaviour changed suddenly? Does he or she now speak about hurting others?
- Difficulty concentrating- Is the child able to sit still in class or follow up on age appropriate tasks?
- Unexplained physical problems- Has he suddenly lost appetite? Has the child started bed-wetting?
The study has highlighted the impact a child’s age compared with his or peers may have on mental health. Granted, not all children are at risk of poor mental health. Nevertheless, parents should actively engage the teachers to see that the child adjusts well in his class. Compelling the child to continue with his peers despite poor academic results and persistent social problems may be counterproductive. There may be a need for a mental health expert to evaluate the child if a serious mental illness is suspected.
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