Monday, May 21, 2012

Starting school later is best, research says

New Research Evidence: The Longevity Project

The new evidence comes from an unlikely source – an extraordinary longitudinal research study based on a group of over 1,000 Californian children born early last century, and whose development was tracked from early childhood throughout their lives, until they died. More specifically, the Terman Life Cycle Study was initiated in 1922 by Lewis M. Terman as a study of gifted children in California. Participants were followed throughout their lives, with evaluations occurring every five to ten years. The research team of the resultant Longevity Project, led by Professor Howard S. Friedman of University of California in Riverside, supplemented this information with the collection of death certificates and the construction and validation of new psychosocial indices, including measures of personality, alcohol use and mental adjustment. The Terman data therefore offer a unique opportunity to look at the possible lifelong consequences of early educational milestones. Professor Friedman and his researchers used data from this sample to examine lifelong outcomes associated with ages at first reading and school entry.
Keep on playing kids!

Based on a review of the literature, the researchers hypothesised that entering school at a relatively early age would be associated with lower academic performance and worse psychosocial adjustment across the lifespan, including increased mortality risk. They also examined educational achievement, midlife health and mental adjustment, and alcohol use as potential mediators of these relations. 

The lead researcher of the Longevity Project, Dr Howard S. Friedman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California in Riverside, said:

“In our work on The Longevity Project, an 8-decade study of healthy aging, we were amazed to discover that starting formal schooling too early often led to problems throughout life, and shockingly was a predictor of dying at a younger age. This was true even though the children in The Longevity Project were intelligent and good learners. I'm very glad that I did not push to have my own children start formal schooling at too young an age, even though they were early readers. Most children under age six need lots of time to play, and to develop social skills, and to learn to control their impulses. An over-emphasis on formal classroom instruction-- that is, studies instead of buddies, or ‘staying in’ instead of ‘playing out’ -- can have serious effects that might not be apparent until years later.”

Their findings, then, are unambiguous and dramatic: to quote the researchers’ 2009 paper from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, “Early school entry was associated with less educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment, and most importantly, increased mortality risk”.
Commentary on the Findings
These research findings are somewhat counter-intuitive, in that the sampled children were actually of above-average intelligence. This has considerable implications for how we, as a society, respond educationally to bright children. The conventional wisdom is that naturally intelligent children should have their intellect “fed” and “stimulated” at a young age, so they are not “held back”, as conventional thinking has it. Yet these new empirical findings strongly suggest that exactly the opposite may well be the case, and that young children’s “run-away” intellect actually needs to be slowed down in the early years, if they are not to risk growing up in an intellectually unbalanced way, with possible life-long negative health effects.

Whilst it is always important to treat “positivistic” research of this kind with caution and not generalise uncritically or recklessly from it, what is so compelling about these new research findings is that they add robust empirical corroboration to the arguments that have been made by a host of authorities from education and psychology over many decades – including Donald Winnicott, Maria Montesssori, Rudolf Steiner, Professors David Elkind, Lilian Katz and Neil Postman, and the Ypsilanti High/Scope Project – that an introduction to early, overly formal  institutional schooling has negative health effects on young children that can be life-long in impact.  

Download the full media release  here.