The Disadvantages of Summer Babies

(iStockphoto)

A new report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the U.K. examines the big difference that a few months can make in the student achievement of young children. Authors Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden and Ellen Greaves found (along with several previous studies, like this one and this one) that children born in summer months generally score lower on standardized tests and are seen as “underachievers;” while children born in September and autumn months are more academically and socially successful. From a press release about the study:

Previous research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown that children born at the start of the academic year achieve better exam results, on average, than children born at the end of the academic year. In England, this means that children born in the autumn tend to outperform those born in the summer. New research published today by IFS, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, shows that month of birth also matters for other characteristics and outcomes of young people growing up in England today.  

The idea that small age gaps can have big impacts is nothing new. In fact, it’s something we write about in Superfreakonomics, with the birthday breakdown of European soccer players: 43 percent of players were born in the first thee months of the year, while only 9 percent were born in the final three months. Children who are a few months older than their peers at 5 or 6 have more developed cognitive and motor skills, which makes them more advanced athletes and students. This early advantage can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies later on: the child thinks she is an underachiever, and so will often play that role.  

The IFS researchers found some other startling statistics: summer babies are between 20 and 30 percentage points (2.5 – 3.5 times) more likely to be considered below average by their teachers by age 7, and are 7 percentage points (2.5 times) more likely to report being always unhappy at school. They are also 6 percentage points (twice as likely) to report bullying, perhaps because of their smaller physical size.

Co-author Ellen Greaves states:  “…the government should be concerned about the wider educational experience of summer-born children, who appear to be at a disadvantage in terms of their well-being as well as their test scores.” 

[HT: duffmanbrown]


Jim

Elder and Lubotsky (Journal of Human Resources, 2009) also find that children with older classmates are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD than their peers. This is exacerbated by the practice of "redshirting" kindergarteners, in which more affluent parents who either need no child care or can pay for an additional year of private pre-K choose to hold their children back.

Mike B

Does that mean they can practice with the regular Kindergarten class, but not participate in any tests or competitions?

Dusan Vilicic Held

What about people in the southern hemisphere? We have different dates to strart the school year, as well as reversed seasons. Maybe there is some interesting information to be found by analyzing the differences between both hemispheres

MW

Where I am in the southern hemisphere, we still have the same basic situation: summer holidays are mid December to end of January, the new school year starts in February (i.e. right after the summer holidays.) Other than shifting the month names, there is no difference (except that our summer holidays are about a month earlier than they should be, according to the weather, so as to fit Christmas/new year in at the beginning.)

Of more interest perhaps would be Japan, where the start of the school year and the end of the summer holidays do not coincide. (I expect there are other such countries, but Japan is the only one I know of off hand.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_term#Japan

teegee

It doesn't matter when the summer holiday is, just when the kids are born in relation to the start of the school year. Kids born in Japan Jan-Mar are said to be 'born early' & it is generally thought that those born in the first few months of the school year (Apr-Jun) 'do better'...

Taylor

Following the logic of summer babies being bullied, etc. because they are younger and less developed, shouldn't autumn babies be even worse off? Shouldn't it be autumn babies that are struggling instead of excelling as it says at the beginning?

Mike B

Yeah I am also a bit confused. Summer children will tend to be the oldest in any classroom as the cutoff date is in September or October for entry into school.

Cari

the cut off date in NY is December 1.

Zach

Isn't this more of a statement on how more care needs to be taken on how and when kids are grouped into categories? Isn't 7 years old awfully young for teachers to be applying labels like "below average"? Seems like we could negate some of these problems if we would wait to divide the kids up until the age and developmental differences are minimized, like middle school.

stedebonnet

If the education system waited until middle school to divide kids it would be far too late (for that kid and everyone else in the class). If someone has a 60 IQ at 7, its unlikely to be higher at 12. But if you waited until middle school to place that student in a separate category, he or she wouldn't be receiving the attention needed to improve and other students in the class would likely be held back by their performance.

Its not really the education system "grouping" these kids. If teachers didn't categorize these students, their peers would. The answer isn't "lets not categorize kids." The answer is for parents to wait until their kids are at least on level with their peers before sending them to school (developmentally, intellectually, emotionally, etc.).

My mother, who has a MA in special education / child development and been in the field for 25+ years, has always told people with kids born in the summer to wait until their child was 5 (rather than 4) for school. Based off of her anecdotal experience and obvious differences in development speed, boys are more in danger than their female counterparts of falling behind.

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Enter your name...

An anecdote to support the claim that if the teachers didn't categorize the students, then the peers would:

A young relative came home from Kindergarten some years ago and recited the names of all 25 kids in her class, in ranked order from "smartest" to "dumbest". Her mother reported that the only factor apparently in the analysis was the classmate's (perceived) reading skills.

Importantly, being ranked low on the list didn't make the classmate a bad person in any sense. The list was much less judgmental than if an adult had done this. The five year old seemed to think that ranking her classmates according to their reading skill level was really no different than ranking all the children according to their height or hair color.

Mike B

Having a child close to the end of the year also has significant tax advantages so people who plan their parenthood properly will shoot for a delivery date between October and December.

ke

plan their parenthood properly? you've got to be kidding me

Pewlpit

For love or money..?

Maybe our readers will be able to decide Mike B vs ke

Megan

Taylor- The autumn babies are the very oldest (assuming Sept. 1 or so is the cut-off date).

Jim- I don't understand...the children with older classmates? So the younger ones are more likely to be diagnosed? Either way, I don't see how this would be exacerbated by "redshirting" it would just shift who is youngest and who is oldest.

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Enter your name...

Yes, you've got it: So long as we only have one group a year, there will always be someone who is "youngest". And so long as we permit voluntary redshirting, the gap in the children's development will always be two full years, which exacerbates the teachers' perception of the youngest as being young.

If you had staggered school years (half the kids start in "September" and the other half in "February"), or even if you split the classes (so that the oldest kids were in one classroom and the youngest were in another), you would not have these perceptual problems.

Megan

Taylor- The autumn babies are the very oldest (assuming Sept. 1 or so is the cut-off date).

Jim- I don't understand...the children with older classmates? So the younger ones are more likely to be diagnosed? Either way, I don't see how this would be exacerbated by "redshirting" it would just shift who is youngest and who is oldest.

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Taylor

Ok that makes more sense. Where I live in Canada the cutoff is Dec 31 (at least when I was a kid) so that's why I was confused.

Natasha

Don't agree with this study at all...our 7 year old daughter is a summer baby....and has excelled in school since day one. It's about parenting, people. Not what month your child was born in. Take some responsibility. Even with the 'disadvantages' of being a girl & a may baby, she is happy, loves school, participates in class, and is already in 'young scholars' for academic excellence. I was a 'fall' baby-mid sept, and the absolute youngest in my class. I couldn't get my DL till my SR year of HS. 17 when I started University! Tell me that's 'easier' for kids, BS. And yet, I excelled, even being the 'baby' of the class, because my PARENTS believed in and pushed me. Parenting will affect your child more than age, performance, other students, or teachers.

MattN

Obviously individual cases are largely influenced by proximal factors such as parental influence, but that doesn't mean that other factors such as this have no effect at all.

Joshua Northey

I love the work in this area because it helps demonstrate how striking the huge waste of human resources is on this planet.

Either due to socio-economic status, factors like this with enrollment, or tons of other inefficiencies we are absolutely terrible at fitting people into tasks that suit them well.

Surely the natural aptitude for playing soccer is distributed fairly randomly amongst the population, and yet we understand our HR processes so little that we end up with this type of distribution on the back end.

It is the same in many other disciplines and is a huge waste of the most valuable resource on earth, cognitive ability.

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ChuckFromAL

I guess the idiots who did this study forgot to take into consideration that children born in summer (unless they fail a grade) are ALWAYS the youngest children in their class. The cutoff for starting kindergarten is being 5 by the end of August in most states. My youngest son has an August birthday, but he is also an A-B student, mostly A's.

Neil

One local school mitigates this effect by shortening the age span of its classes for the first 3 years. Instead of having 3 classes each spanning an age range of 12 months, they have 4 classes each spanning a range of 9 months. With 3 terms per school year, children therefore move up a class every 2 terms rather than every 3. The school is very successful and massively over-subscribed, though I couldn't say whether it's for that reason.

Other schools show no sign of copying the idea, though. It shouldn't be too hard, since most of the schools near here have 2 or 3 classes per year group, each of which spans the entire year. Presumably it would be possible to have 2 classes each spanning 6 months or 3 classes each spanning 4 months and leave children in those groups for the first few years, with the aim of getting all groups to the same point by age 7 (what we call Key Stage 1 in the UK).

I wonder if it's been tried? And would it even help, or would it make the problem worse as the younger group suffers the tyranny of low expectations?

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RobotKittyChan

Malcolm Gladwell covered this a while ago in Outliers - NHL players' birthdays are disproportionately in the first three months of the year. @Natasha, of course parenting plays a huge role in school performance. I personally am a summer baby, managed to score in the 98 percentile on the SAT, graduate with honors from an Ivy League school and go on to a successful career despite my "disadvantage". It just goes to show how frightening it is that we as a society are wasting so much talent. Certainly there are plenty of Summer (and Fall, and Winter and Spring) babies who aren't as lucky as I was or your daughter is to have parents in a position to offer so much guidance.

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Sharon

Did they correct for income? In the US at least, there are statistically significant differences in the income of the parents of children born in each month. The reasons behind this aren't really understood, but 'prom babies' and poorer people trying to keep warm in the winter are some theories. Income could account for all of this.

Tina

Just a random comment that may spark some dialogue. Many teachers plan to have their children during the summer so as not to interfere with the school year. My husband is a teacher and we targeted late spring/summer birth dates for our two most recent children (one still in womb). Does this mean our educators are setting their own children up for failure in the system they are the biggest advocates of? I'd be interested in seeing data on that.

JSB

...how does the current FMLA in the US factor into these choices people make (or try to make) is interesting data point. US is far, far behind in terms of parental leave - archaic really. What the potential downstream affect could be to children AND parents if gievn more appropriate leave (similar to other G7/G30/etc nations...)?? Years before 5 last the rest of their lives.

SAO

The sports advantage is that kids who are bigger and more coordinated are better than their younger peers, hence get more play time. By the time a few months makes no difference, they've had a lot more play/practice time.

Since most kids going to school get the same amount of teaching, regardless of success, you'd expect the advantage of being a few months older to fade over time. Is it still noticeable at age 10?

In England, most kids start formal education with school work at age 4 (reception year), when 6 months is a big difference. Comparing with American kids and with Russian kids (who usually start at age 7), would be interesting, as it would point out to what extent the difference in 7 year olds is a result of the age difference at 7 and to what extent it is a carry-over from the age difference at 4 or 5.

Ruth

I taught 1st grade before kindergarten was common. In Al. the children had to be 6 by Sept. In Fl. they could be 6 by January in order to enter school. Some parents kept their children out if they aren't as mature as they needed to be. Makes a lot of difference.

Clay

I think the reason this post is confusing everyone is because many readers are American, but the article is about the U.K. school system. In all five American school districts that I have lived in, the cutoff is December 31st. Thus, those students born in January are the oldest in their class.

An American study with similar results would show that autumn babies (those born from October through December) actually have the lower test scores.

A footnote clarifying this could have avoided a lot of confusion.

Stefan Richter

For parents in the UK who are concerned and affected by this: I've started a Google Group in order to share advice and organise a campaign for a more flexible school start in England for summer born children.
Please join, especially if you are a parent who has hit a brick wall with their local education authority. Let's make change happen!

http://groups.google.com/group/schoolstart

Regards,

Stefan

jenn

This is only an issue if children start school too young. In countries that start school at 7, the rate of success is not pre-determined by the birth month. This is a proven case that starting school at the age of 4 is actually bad for some children. Why is the Uk so far behind in this way of thinking?

Streaming is also a detrimental thing to do. When a young 4 year old is put in the lower group, it may take a few years for them to notice. But when they do, they feel badly about themselves and stop trying. Teachers slot children into categories and do not expect that they are capable of moving. When the lowest group continue to disappoint as under-achievers, the teachers can say to themselves,' I told you so'. but the streaming is what keeps them there.

It is a sad state when children are slotted into categories so young. Give them a chance for goodness sake! I am a very different person from when I was 4, as is everyone! Shouldn't everyone be given the same chance to show they can grow up and achieve more if given a chance.

Stop streaming and stop starting school so young. Let children play for a few years which makes more rounded and healthy adults!

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Melina

Where can I find the study that the European soccer statistic came from?

Alwyn

I have a little boy age six who is a summer baby. If you take all the autumn babies out of his football team he is the second best player, with them he is the tenth. He in effect a year younger and at this age its massive. In England this is supported by only a small percentage of football players being born in the summer. He effectively is not playing on a even field pardon the pun. It makes me sad as he try's so hard but in effect he is playing against much stronger and quicker lads down to age and not down to skill. Summer babies need some recognition both physically and at school academically, maybe break classes and teams into .5 or move the football season to be different to school year so they don't lose out on both. Whatever it is fundamentally wrong that in what is two competitive environments he is disadvantaged.