The youngest children in a school year group have a higher risk of developing mental health problems than the oldest children, according to a new study.

A survey of more than 10,000 British schoolchildren aged five to 15 years old, found that those with birthdays in the last three months of the school year were more prone to psychiatric problems, such as hyperactivity and behavioural difficulties, compared to those born in the earlier in the school year.

“Our study shows that those born in the first third of the school year have an 8.3 per cent chance of having a psychiatric disorder, whereas the youngest third have a 9.9 per cent chance,” says psychologist Robert Goodman, who led the research team at King’s College London.

He suggests that the effects may be due to teachers having the same academic and behavioural expectations for all the children in a year group, even though there may be up to 12 months’ difference in their ages.

For example, he says, the youngest students in a year may be achieving normal results for their age, but still appear to behind the class. They are more likely to be labelled as having learning difficulties, Goodman told New Scientist, “and this kind of stress can lead children to suffer from psychiatric problems.”

Preventing problems

The increased risk due to age differences for individual children is not great, and may be overridden by other factors such as family discord. But the authors still believe it is important. They estimate that, of the 750,000 British children with psychiatric disorders, 60,000 cases would be prevented if the youngest and middle children in a school year were at no more risk than the oldest.

“Every aspect of an individual child, including age, needs to be taken into account when balancing a teacher’s expectations,” says Dinah Morley, deputy director of UK mental health charity Young Minds. “It is possible that children who are younger and have less developed cognitive and social abilities could lag behind others in their year group.”

Goodman suggests that year groups could be streamed according to their ages or simply that the teacher might call the class register in order of age, so that awareness of the children’s relative ages would be highlighted.

He points out that the difference in risk seen in the study are not due to seasonal effects. The results were the same in Scotland, where the school recruitment year starts in March, as they were in England and Wales, where the year starts in September.

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