Over the past several years, I have had the privilege of screening students before they come into kindergarten or first grade at two local Mennonite schools. I have then followed-up with the teachers as to how the students continue to progress through their school years. It is typically the same students who tested lower on the Gesell screening conducted before school began who are still struggling in second, fourth, and sixth grade. This opportunity of testing students coming into school always causes me to analyze and re-analyze the way we are starting our students off on their school journey: where is our education system failing these students?
In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell begins by showing how the majority of top hockey players in Canada have birthdays in January, February, and March. He goes on to conclude that this is because the eligibility cut-off date for the hockey teams is January 1. A six-year-old child whose birthday is January 2 would be playing alongside a child who also does not turn six until December 31. When you are an adult, the difference may not be great. But when you are a child, the difference is much larger. The brain development, gross motor skill development, fine motor skill development, and language processing development of a child who is six for almost an entire year before another child turns six has a significant advantage over the younger child. And when groups are made choosing the best hockey players in the team to be in varsity or junior varsity versus second string, those who appear bigger, more coordinated, and stronger on the ice are put into the top groups. Varsity gets extra practice, better coaching, more play time and before long, players from those top groups grow up and become chosen for the big leagues. And, Gladwell concludes, that is why you see the majority of top hockey players having birthdays within the first three months of the year.
Are we doing the same thing in our schools? The students whose birthdays fall in September-November are in the same grade level as those whose birthdays fall nearly a year later in June-August. Again, they have nearly an entire year of advantage in brain development, gross motor skill development, fine motor skill development, and language processing.
If you are not doing some type of developmental screening test on your students before they are entering kindergarten or first grade, I encourage you to implement one as standard practice for entering your school. Those born in June-August will have to work harder than their counter parts in those first several years, especially if they are already displaying a weakness in one or more of those areas of development. For parents who feel that there may be a negative stigma attached to holding a child back a year before starting school, remind them of these two factors: 1) If you send your child, he will be competing against students that are nearly a year older than him for 8-12 years of his life. 2) By waiting, your child will have a year of additional brain development, gross motor skill development, fine motor skill development and language processing before he starts school.
More importantly, are we separating our top students in math, reading, or sports and giving them better instruction than our lower-performing students? Is that ability grouping and specific instruction increasing the performance gap between our students or decreasing it? When teaching first grade, I had approximately twenty students in one grade. It was very difficult to give effective reading practice to that many students unless they were split up into smaller groups.
There is certainly a time and place for grouping students. However, it is important to keep the groupings fluid so students can move in and out of the groups easily. And, if possible, give your “slower reading group” double the amount of practice time and instruction than your “top reading group.” Our groupings should seek to lessen the gap between students rather than increase it.
Is it possible for an August child to compete with students born nearly a year earlier and still be successful as a student? Absolutely. My birthday is August 28, and my parents chose to send me to first grade even though I had barely turned six. I have no memories of struggling in school, and I thrived in the competitive, academic environment. As a teacher, I have seen several other students who tested well on the Gesell development test and were admitted to kindergarten or first grade at nearly a year younger than some of their fellow classmates, and they too tasted success within the classroom. But it is not typical.
There are far more “May-August” students who show delays in one or more areas of development when tested against their counterparts who are nearly a year ahead of them. First, let’s allow those students another year of development before asking them to start their school journey. And secondly, if they have already begun their school journey and are struggling, let’s give them more focused instruction in order to lessen the learning gap between them and their counterparts in your classroom.
Will we ever completely solve the age-old question of why some students thrive and others struggle? No, not on this side of heaven, but we can continue to analyze, make adjustments to our teaching, and always strive to help students to thrive.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers : the story of success. Back Bay Books, Cop.
CONTRIBUTOR: Kendra Martin