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Researchers Say There's a Right Age For Starting Kindergarten

Photograph by Twenty20

Are we sending our kids to kindergarten too early? It seems that might be the case, according to a new study from researchers at Stanford University. When parents waited to put their kids into kindergarten until age 6, they had much better self-control several years later than kids who entered kindergarten at age 5.

Researchers analyzed the Danish National Birth Cohort, a study of more than 54,000 parents who provided data about their kids at age 7 and 11. They found that kids who started kindergarten just one year later than the average age of their peers in school had 73 percent better outcomes testing their hyperactivity and inattention four years later.

Psychologists say "executive function"—that is, self-control and the ability to manage time and stay focused on a task even if they're distracted—is one of the most important traits that contributes to learning and development success.

The researchers say kids aren't born with these self-regulation skills, but it's the way you parent that helps them develop that skill set. There are three types of brain functions that contribute to learning and mastering executive function: working memory, mental flexibility and self-control. The best way for parents to help their kids practice those behaviors is to establish routines (and stick to them), model social behaviors, and create and maintain reliable relationships with others. Creative play and socialization with others are a key part of the process of learning self-regulation.

In Nordic countries such as Finland, for example, some kids don't start formal schooling until they're 8 years old. Rather than going to school every day, they're educated at home or enrolled in a pre-K program that focuses on playtime and social skills.

Kids who don't have their needs met by adults or their environment, or are exposed to toxic stress can suffer a serious delay or impairment of their skill development that can make them fall behind their peers. In Finland, this strategy of focusing on developing executive function rather than using age as a kindergarten-readiness indicator has shown to be effective even beyond age 11; it is one of the top-performing nations in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that measures academic performance of 15-year-olds internationally in math, reading and science.

While Finland and other Nordic countries still lag behind some Asian countries that have more rigorous, academic-intensive environments at an early age, they're still doing better than American kids by quite a bit. Maybe holding our kids back a year is actually a really good idea.

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