The Struggles of Young-for-their-Grade Students

Relatively young students

Several years ago I taught Jacob: an affable high school sophomore notable for his quick wit, his impressive height…and his immaturity. He was, technically speaking, goofy. Jacob’s peers noticed, and didn’t appreciate his antics. (Neither did I.)

When I met his parents for a teacher conference, I commented on his surprisingly juvenile behavior. They exchanged glances, and his mother said: “Well, he is the youngest student in the sophomore class. He could be a freshman.”

This news made all the difference to me. I had been fooled by Jacob’s 6′ 2″ frame. His behavior, odd for a 10th grader, was entirely appropriate for a 9th grader. When I started giving the structure he needed, he calmed down. And grew up.

By the end of the year, he worked with his classmates very effectively.

The Travails of Relatively Young Students…

A recent BrainBlogger post describes the Jacobs of the educational world. If a school has a strict cut-off date for a particular grade, then some students will be almost a full year younger than others.

In college, this difference shouldn’t matter much. After all, 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds should be emotionally and cognitively well matched.

In younger grades, however, that age difference can be huge. The age-appropriate developmental differences between the youngest and the oldest kindergartener might be substantial.

BrainBlogger’s author–identified only by her first name Naomi–outlines the alarming and ongoing consequences of this early developmental gap.

  • Relatively young students are likelier to be criticized for their immaturity–as happened with my student Jacob.
  • They are likelier to be diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Relatively older students are likelier to be accepted into Gifted programs, even if they’re not gifted.
  • Relatively young students are less likely to take the high-stakes exams that shape educational possibilities in some countries.
  • They are less likely to attend college, and also less likely to graduate from college.

…and, some benefits

At the same time, Naomi is careful to note the complexity of the question.

In the first place, as she writes, “the impact of [relative age effects] on educational attainment is…probabilistic not deterministic.” That is, some younger students will do just fine, even if their group is less likely to do so.

In fact, some research shows the advantages of being at the younger end of a grade’s age spectrum. For instance, younger students get the message that they need to work harder to succeed as much as their older peers, and so might have a better work ethic.

Next Steps

If you’d like to think more about this complex question, I’d start by looking over Naomi’s article. She lays out the research well, and includes sources from many different countries.

In the meanwhile, you’ve now got a helpful new question to ask. When working with students whose behavior makes you wonder about ADHD, you might start by looking up their age.


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