Being the parent of a child with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) isn't easy. Having trouble sitting still and paying attention can cause a lot of stress for school-age children (especially if they're always getting in trouble for it), and living with executive function issues also often translates into a *ton* of lost stuff, forgotten assignments, incomplete homework, and major frustration. ADHD diagnoses can provide valuable insight, but experts are also concerned that some kids are being misdiagnosed. And it's why a recent study showing that kids who are the youngest in their class are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD is particularly eye-opening.
The research team, led by University College London psychiatrist Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, reviewed 17 studies involving more than 14 million children in 12 countries, and looked at how a child's age relative to their classmates might affect whether or not they will be diagnosed or medicated for ADHD. And what they found was that the youngest children in the classroom (aka those born late in the year) were actually more likely to be diagnosed with the condition than their peers.
What that might suggest, according to Moncrieff, is that behavior teachers and parents might be assuming is ADHD-related could actually just be normal, run-of-the-mill immaturity — and that, most importantly, it doesn't actually need to be labeled or medicated.
The distinction between developmentally-appropriate behavior and ADHD is definitely an important one: if a child is only having trouble paying attention and sitting still because teachers are expecting more from them than they can realistically give according to their age and maturity, it seems that what they really need is not a diagnosis or stimulant medication, but just some more time to grow up. And this question can be a big source of stress and uncertainty for parents of late-born kids: there is often a huge difference, after all, between children born in November or December and their January or February-born classmates, especially in the early years.
These days, most children in the United States begin kindergarten at age 5, although according to Quartz, an increasing number of parents (about 20 percent) are sending their children to school a year later, beginning at age 6. And this could be a really good thing: a 2015 study from Stanford University found, for example, found that, in Denmark, "delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent" by the time the child was 11 years old. And in Finland, delayed schooling certainly seems to be working: Finnish children don't actually begin kindergarten until age 7, according to the BBC, yet the country is consistently considered to have one of the highest-performing education systems in the world.
Dr. Martin Whitely, who co-authored the UCL study, also noted that, compared to other countries, Finland also has a lower rate of ADHD diagnoses, and based on the research, that doesn't seem that surprising. Though it isn't clear whether or not the later starting age is the reason why, it has been shown, for example, that students who are considered "older" than their classmates are more likely to become professional athletes, according to The Conversation, are more likely to go to university, and may be more likely to hold higher-ranking career positions.
What's more though is that a separate 2015 study found that pushing children to read before they are developmentally ready could majorly backfire. According to The Washington Post, Common Core State Standards that require kindergarten children to learn to read can actually "cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion," and set them up for greater issues overall.
Of course, the study's finding definitely doesn't mean that ADHD is a myth, or that children shouldn't be diagnosed at all. In fact, according to KidsMatter, an Australian government initiative aimed at improving early childhood mental health, early ADHD diagnosis can make a huge difference for kids who are truly struggling. Not only does it mean that children and their families can identify issues and implement strategies to ensure optimal growth and development, ADHD symptoms often continue into adulthood, and those who struggle with ADHD as children are more likely to struggle with learning disorders, and mental health issues on a long-term basis.
At the very least though? An early diagnosis can help prevent children with ADHD from taking their difficulties personally as they grow up, and can also allow them the chance to get help to learning important skills like organization, planning, managing impulsivity, persisting with tasks, and regulating their emotions — skills they will need their entire lives.
Whether or not a child is diagnosed with ADHD though, it seems more important to consider that any child who is struggling deserves the chance to reach their potential. And what the research seems to be suggesting is that one way to do that is to acknowledge that young children inevitably develop at different rates, meaning that a one-size-fits-all approach to early education may simply not be the best way.
And for parents of late-birthday kids? It sounds like delaying school could actually make a world of difference, and might be something to consider if teachers are suspecting ADHD.