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How does starting school change our mind and brain?

Entering formal schooling is a major transition in almost every child’s life. Children often experience sharp differences when they transition from preschool to primary school, especially in relation to the structure of  the setting, curriculum, and teachers’ expectations.

Given that the formal education system is a relative recent human invention, an intriguing question is how immersing into schooling alters the development of  the mind and brain during early childhood. Specifically, does entering schooling contribute to the commonly observed leap in cognitive, social, and moral functioning during the period from late preschool through early elementary school, collectively referred to as the 5–7 shift?

Arbitrary Cutoff Date

Studying this question turns out to be not trivial. Given that entering school is a ubiquitous experience, it is not possible to randomly assign a group of children to first grade and keeping another group away. However, as most countries adopt a somewhat arbitrary cutoff date to determine when a child will enter school, some researchers have capitalized on this regulation by longitudinally following the development of children who are born close to the deadline, comparing those who are just old enough to enroll in first grade to those who just miss the cut-off and hence remain in preschool/kindergarten. In other words, these two groups of children are very similar in chronological age, but differ in their educational experiences. Together with Dr. Eva Rafetseder (University of Stirling, UK) and Dr. Sobanawartiny Wikeajumar (University of Nottingham, UK), we are conducting a longitudinal study with a similar design that assesses brain functions, cognitive abilities, and academic performance in a sample of children similar in age but differ in year of school entrance.

Using this “school cut-off” design, researchers have found that children who enter school, compared to those who don’t, show more gain in literacy and math abilities across time between beginning and end of first school year. This is not too surprising, to some extent, as engagement in academic-related content is to be expected from attending school. Interestingly, when examining more basic building blocks of cognition, studies found an effect of schooling experiences on cognitive control (i.e. the ability to orchestrate thought and action in accordance with internal goals). In a recent study that utilized brain neuroimaging with a school cut-off design, it was found that such improvement in cognitive control is related to greater activation in the right parietal cortex, a brain region that is important for maintaining attentional focus.

 Should my child start now or next year?

Therefore, immersing into schooling as a structured environment has unique impacts on early neurocognitive development, possibly through a shift in demands of maintaining attention in the classroom context. There is evidence for beneficial effects of education on broad categories of cognitive abilities that persist across the lifespan. At this point, it is unclear to what extent differences in initial adaptation to the schooling environment may have long-term implications. Some parents struggle to decide whether their children, especially those born close to the cut-off date, should enter school as soon as they are eligible or wait another year.

One of the underlying reasons is the worry of their children being the youngest and hence disadvantaged in the cohort. Interestingly, results from cut-off studies suggest that younger children in the classroom show similar gains in literacy and numeracy skills as older children. In other words, they are not disadvantaged in learning per se due to being younger in the cohort. However, there is a small age difference in performance at the beginning of the school year that seem to persist till the end of the school year. This initial difference may have long-term implications, as a lower age at school entry within a cohort has also been shown to have a negative effect on grades at years closer to school leaving, which may affect opportunities for higher education and employment. To understand the source of such effects beyond purely age, a better characterization of adaptations in neurocognitive processes necessitated within the schooling context, and the individual differences therein, is highly important.

Ultimately, the decision of when a child should start school needs to be made based on the child’s characteristics, such as cognitive and emotional readiness to transit to formal schooling, and its match to the school’s teaching practices. In any case, parents may find it comforting to know that children’s brains possess such impressive plasticity that they will continue to develop and learn in any educational context.