Children born in December in schools with a December 31 cutoff date are nearly twice as likely to have a learning disorder than those born in January. ADHD did not affect the association between the month of birth and the likelihood that a learning disability diagnosis would be made.
The new register-based study covered children born in Finland between 1996 to 2002. Nearly 400,000 children were examined and 3,000 were found to have a specific learning disorder. These included math, writing, reading or writing.
“We were already familiar with the effects of relative age on school performance, but there had not been any studies on the association between clinically-diagnosed specific learning disorders and relative ages,” said Doctoral Candidate Bianca Arrhenius, Centre for Child Psychiatry, University of Turku, Finland.
Previous studies found that children born later than the usual time in the year, which is why they are often younger than their classmates in class, are more at risk for developing psychiatric disorders, being bullied, and having low academic achievement.
ADHD does not affect learning disabilities
ADHD is a condition that affects many children with learning disabilities. The study compared ADHD- and learning disability-diagnosed children to ADHD-free children. ADHD did not affect the association between the month of birth and the likelihood that a learning disability diagnosis would be made.
“This surprising result was unexpected. Children referred to specialist attention often have complex problems. Dr. Arrhenius says that we didn’t expect the effect of relative age on “pure learning disorder” to be so significant given previous research findings about ADHD relative age.
“Diagnosing learning disorders using psychological tests also takes the exact child’s age into consideration, which is a better approach than the methods used to diagnose ADHD. We expected to see more subtle differences in the months of birth. It seems that children who are relatively young can be sent to specialized healthcare more easily,” Arrhenius thinks.
Strive for equality
Research has shown that parents, teachers, and health care professionals need to be aware about the phenomenon of relative ages, especially when assessing a child’s learning ability.
“There is a risk that both over-and under-diagnosis can occur, which means that students younger than themselves may be diagnosed more frequently than those in their class. This could mean that older students may not receive the rehabilitation and diagnosis they need. Arrhenius says that a more systematic screening for learning disability could help to reduce the effect of relative age on referrals for specialized health care.
Materials provided by University of Turku. Note: Content may be edited to improve style and length.