BORN 4 SPORT – The disadvantages to summer-born children

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The summer is almost over and many of us are anticipating a return to routine with a sense of relish. I know I certainly am!

For myself, this September brings with it trepidation and excitement as my eldest starts preschool. As a summer-born, I’m aware it will be a very different experience for her compared to the eldest in her year. As I filled in a form ticking the skills she has already mastered, I was acutely aware many were “only just” and others not at all.

I’m confident that teachers cater to the different strengths and weaknesses of children in their year, which are bound to vary regardless of their age. It’s also only preschool, not as formal as starting reception. Some have even commented it could be seen as an advantage that she gets to start school sooner.

However, my concerns don’t appear to be unfounded. In 2015, UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced the government’s intention to give children born from April 1st to August 31st the chance to defer a year and start reception aged five. In his open letter, he shared:

“We have decided that it is necessary to amend the school admissions code further to ensure that summer-born children can be admitted to the reception class at the age of five if it is in line with their parents’ wishes, and to ensure that those children are able to remain with that cohort as they progress through school, including through to secondary school.”

He comments that while the majority of parents will still choose to start their children at school at four years old, this option allows parents the right to decide as they “know their children best”. This gives summer-born children who are not ready at four the best chance of excelling in school.

Currently, UK schools and councils often say summer-born pupils who defer must go straight into year one and miss out on the reception year, consequently, some parents are sending their child to school before they believe they are ready to avoid them missing out on education. These new plans allow children to have their full education simply delayed by one year.

There are numerous studies which back up the advantage autumn-born children have over those who are born later in the year. Aside from more maturity, the intrauterine benefits of extra vitamin D (linked to numerous health benefits) that the mother will be exposed to over a long summer before giving birth results in extra strength and stamina which often leave them top of sporting activities.

In former Olympic competitor Matthew Syed’s much acclaimed book “Bounce” on the “the myth of talent and the power of practice”, he draws on years of research regarding sport science, neuroscience, psychology and economics as to what makes a sporting world beater and he highlights the success of autumn-born children over summer-born children – particularly in American sports due to cut off dates.

Previous studies have noted elite athletes worldwide in sports including ice hockey, soccer, tennis and baseball have birth dates clustered in certain periods of the year. It is believed this occurs because the oldest children in each grade or youth sports age group are more likely to be deemed “talented” than their less physically and/or emotionally developed peers, and are therefore given access to enhanced coaching, training and competition. [NCAA.org]

November- and October-born children emerged as fitter, stronger and more powerful than their peers born throughout the rest of the year, especially those whose birthdays fell in April or June.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, from the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at Essex University and colleagues found that autumn-born children enjoyed “a clear physical advantage” over their classmates.

The gap in physical ability between children in the same class but born in different months was sometimes very wide. “For example, we found that a boy born in November can run at least 10% faster, jump 12% higher and is 15% more powerful than a child of the same age born in April. This is, potentially, a huge physical advantage,” said Sandercock. [Guardian.com]

The study which was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, found that when scores for the three kinds of fitness were combined, those born in April were the least fit, then those in June. That could see those children excluded from school teams and becoming sporting underachievers.

So do we approach preschool or school with a number of excuses as to why our summer-borns are underachievers? Certainly not. Is it good to be aware? Definitely. It’s worth bearing in mind that countries such as Finland don’t even begin formal education until six years old. Forget about pushing school back one year, theirs starts two years later than the UK and Gibraltar yet, they have one of the best educational systems in the world.

Whether a child is ready for school or not does not need to predetermine their long term success overall. Each one of us is wired differently and it’s no surprise that traditional schooling is more suitable to some than others.

As one teacher pragmatically shared with me, “there has to be a cut off somewhere and someone will always be on the raw end of the deal.” One summer-born mother shared how feeling “behind the class” caused her to be more driven to succeed and has helped her to become the driven and competitive professional that she is today.

As with everything regarding parenting, there is no one size fits all. There are patterns and trends, but ultimately, we all make our own destiny. As parents we can only support and be equally encouraging to summer-born children who defy the odds as we are to those who are better suited to taking a step back.