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The question: I have a boy who was born in December. He'll be ready to enter Kindergarten next year. Do you have any advice on whether to hold a child back a year when it's time for them to start school?

The answer: There are many factors to consider when deciding the right time to send your child to school. This decision is a little more complicated if you child will be one of the youngest in the class.

There is no question that the almost one-year difference in maturity between those born in January and those born in December is significant. Although 12 months may not seem like much, for young children this represents a 20-per-cent difference in life experience.

When I posed this question to several elementary-school teachers, they replied that they can see a difference in reading, writing and level of social maturity when they compare kindergarten students born early in the year with those born in November and December. They also noted that this difference in abilities is generally no longer noticeable by the time the children get to about Grade 3. This makes intuitive sense, as the relative difference in age diminishes with each passing year, and by the time these kids get to Grade 3 they have all spent about half their lives together in school. Educational research confirms that by Grade 4, difference in age is not as important as factors like the educational level of their parents and the economic status of their family.

Author Malcolm Gladwell offers a different opinion in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell suggests that children who are older than their peers because of the timing of their birthday have a distinct advantage that can last long-term. "Outliers" focuses mainly on athletes and how the majority of elite Canadian junior-hockey players tend to be born in the first few months of the year. (In Canada, the cutoff determining eligibility to play hockey at a certain level is Jan. 1.) He claims this same effect may also apply to school performance, as children born later in the year tend to be under-represented at U.S. colleges.

So what's a parent to do? If your child has met his developmental milestones on time, communicates easily, socializes readily and can follow simple instructions, then your child is probably ready for Kindergarten, even if he will be one of the youngest in the class. On the other hand, if your child has been slower to meet milestones, has difficulty expressing himself, struggles to make friends or is uncomfortable in a group or class setting, then waiting a year may be in his best interest.

For families who do decide to wait, I encourage them to enroll their child in a full-time preschool or daycare program so that they can practice and develop the social and academic skills they will require to be successful in school.

For many families, school entry may also be dictated by financial considerations or employment obligations. If this is the case, and you suspect that your child might be at risk of having difficulties in Kindergarten, don't hesitate to discuss your concerns with school officials prior to September. It is the responsibility of schools to be prepared for children at all levels of readiness. Giving the school as much notice as possible, so that they can be better prepared, is always in your child's best interest.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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