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Study: Delayed schooling linked to increased risk of behavior problems

October 6, 1997

CHICAGO (AP) _ Parents who delay their child’s entry into first grade to give the youngster more time to mature may be doing more harm than good, a study suggests.

Children who started school when they were a year or more older than their classmates were 70 percent more likely to display extreme behavior problems, said the study, published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The study did not explore why being older than classmates increased the risk of behavior problems. But an expert not involved with the work, University of Minnesota sociologist Michael Resnick, said any youngster who is ``out of sync″ with classmates _ even one who just looks older _ is more likely to be a troubled teen.

The lead researcher, Dr. Robert Byrd of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, found that 12 percent of children who were delayed in starting school displayed extreme behavior problems, compared with 7 percent of children whose ages were normal for their grade. He added the problems only become more apparent as the child gets older.

``We need to concentrate our efforts on getting kids ready to enter school at the age that they’re supposed to,″ Byrd said.

Doctors already knew that adolescents who are older than most of their classmates are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs, engage in risky sexual behavior, think about suicide and be violent.

But they haven’t known whether the problems were linked to delayed school entry or failing a grade or both.

Children who had been retained while going through school had an even higher risk: 19 percent displayed extreme behavior problems, the study found.

Problems included cheating or telling lies; displaying a strong temper and losing it easily; having sudden changes in mood; feeling or complaining that no one loves him or her; and crying too much. Children were considered to have extreme problems if they displayed such behaviors more often than 90 percent of other children their age.

The study looked at a nationally representative sample of 9,079 children who were ages 7 to 17 years old in 1988. About 26 percent of the children were a year or more older than normal for their grade.

Almost half of the children who were old for their grade had been delayed starters.

An important finding of the study was that the elevated risk of being old for grade was true only among white children, not blacks, Resnick said.

It wasn’t clear why but Byrd said it may be that black children, because they more often are impoverished than whites, are more often held back.

``It may be that there are more of their same-age peers in their class, causing fewer problems,″ Byrd said.

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