Brooklyn mom Ellen Baxt worried that her still-napping 4-year-old daughter wasn’t ready for kindergarten this year. 

Baxt noticed the gap between her daughter and her peers in a universal pre-K program, but her request to repeat pre-K was denied. New York City public schools mandate that children who turn 5 by Dec. 31 must go to kindergarten, so Baxt’s daughter — whose birthday falls just four days before that cutoff — had no choice but to enroll. 

“For the first three weeks of school she was wetting her pants every day,” Baxt said. “She was exhausted. And when it comes to what the [education department] wants in terms of reading and writing, she doesn’t do those things.”

New York City’s Dec. 31 age cutoff is among the latest in the nation. It’s later than the Dec. 1 cutoff in other parts of the state, such as Long Island. And it’s months later than the cutoff at New York City private schools and in many other large school districts across the country, which tends to be Sept. 1.

The city’s late cutoff means that roughly a third of public school students are expected to start kindergarten at age 4 — an early start that could have lasting impacts on students born late in the calendar year. 

A new analysis conducted by the Independent Budget Office, or IBO, at Chalkbeat’s request, uncovered a strong correlation between being born later in the year and being classified as having a learning disability by New York City schools. 

The effect was most pronounced when comparing children born in November and December to those with January and February birthdays. Children born in the last two months of the year were 65% more likely to be classified as having learning disabilities than those born during the first two months, a Chalkbeat analysis of the IBO data revealed.

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‘Unbalanced comparisons’

Education experts say the Dec. 31 cutoff is not necessarily a problem — if the curriculum is developmentally appropriate. But as national standards have re-shaped local curricula over the past several years, many parents and advocates are concerned that the academic demands are too much for children born later in the calendar year. New York’s youngest kindergarteners are not only being taught materials designed for 5 and 6 year olds, they’re also being evaluated against these older children.

“New York’s Dec. 31 cutoff leads to unbalanced comparisons,” said Mariana Souto-Manning, professor at Columbia’s Teachers College and director of Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education Programs. “The misalignment of cut-offs across states and New York’s cut-off being Dec. 31 end up pressuring New York education leaders and teachers to push-down academic skills in ways that are inappropriate.” 

The Independent Budget Office’s new analysis suggests a deeper dialogue is needed to understand whether schools may be quick to label students as having learning disabilities when they might simply be too young for the demands of the coursework and the social-emotional expectations. 

The study looked at students classified with disabilities across different early elementary grades in the 2017-18 school year, adjusting for demographics including race, poverty, gender, and English Language Learners. 

Of all of the different disability categories, the “learning disability” classification — an umbrella term that covers academic challenges that affect a student’s ability to read, write, listen, speak, or do math — saw the largest positive correlation with birth month, followed by speech impairment, the analysis found. By contrast, the intellectual disability category, which is for children classified with below average intellectual ability and life skills, did not positively correlate with birth month. 

Taking the six disability categories studied into account, students born in the second half of the year were roughly 20% more likely to be classified with a disability than children born in the first half of the year.

“When we looked at four cohorts of students by birth year — kindergarteners through third graders who were standard age for their grade in 2017-18 — we found that there is a strong positive relationship between being born later in the year and being classified as a student with disabilities,” said Sarita Subramanian, of the Independent Budget Office. “This relationship is statistically significant even when we controlled for other factors among the youngest cohort in our sample.”

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Responding to the IBO findings, Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson, said, “Special education assessments and eligibility decisions are based on the needs of each individual student, and teachers differentiate instruction by student to meet everyone’s needs.”

Filson noted that the study looked at a limited set of students over the course of just one school year, but that the education department would continue to review the IBO’s findings and “broader” data on the subject.

To be sure, the youngest children in any given class tend to be at a disadvantage. In states with a Sept. 1 cutoff, children born in August — who are among the youngest in their classes — were more likely to be diagnosed and treated for ADHD, a 2018 study found.

For its part, Brooklyn’s P.S. 15, the school that Baxt’s daughter attends, found a reasonable solution for the little girl. While some schools may have worried about her daughter’s academic performance because of her reading struggles, the Red Hook school never suggested to Baxt that her daughter should be evaluated for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a special education plan that mandates support for students classified with disabilities. 

Instead, teachers and administrators at P.S. 15 — which has won recognition for its special education program and serves a high number of students with disabilities — made a few practical changes: They now send Baxt’s kindergartener to a pre-K classroom for nap time. 

Once her daughter was able to nap during the school day again, it immediately solved the toileting problem, Baxt said. Her school also discussed the possibility of letting the child repeat kindergarten next year — another practice that is uncommon in public schools nowadays. Approaching the situation with that kind of flexibility is uncharacteristic of most public schools, observers say. 

Reducing ‘misery’ of children

New York City has historically had a December kindergarten cutoff, but principals used to have more discretion over whether students could delay kindergarten before the education department took over admissions six years ago, some parents said. 

Other states had December cutoffs decades ago, as well, but over the past 45 years most states have moved back their cutoff dates, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit policy research group. The age pushed upward as kindergarten became increasingly academic, experts have said, as pressure from standardized testing led to less time for play and physical development.

New York City’s December kindergarten age cut-off is often seen as an equity issue: It provides school access earlier to more families who might not be able to afford early education. But now that the city has universal pre-K for 4-year-olds and an increasing number of districts also have free programs for 3-year-olds — programs that children start at age 3 and 2, respectively — more children have access to high-quality education at a younger age, regardless of their parents’ income. That has some educators and parents rethinking the age cutoff. 

Early education experts note that in the younger grades, a child born even a few months later than peers might be in a very different place, developmentally speaking.

“The younger the age, the higher degree of variability of what is normal or typical or standard behavior,” said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.”

“There’s no problem to have a December cutoff if schools recognize the needs of all children. There will always be a one-year-span,” she said. 

But the new analysis of birth data and disability classification “validates that the curriculum is being pushed back and not taking children’s needs into mind,” Klein believes. 

One Brooklyn mom told Chalkbeat that her public pre-K program suggested her son, who has a November birthday and was one of the youngest in his class, get evaluated for an IEP after they struggled to get him to participate in sing-alongs and art projects. 

“He wouldn’t get up from the rug and dance. They were concerned he had a sensory issue,” said the mom, who requested anonymity.

Her son had been a late talker, so the mom spent a lot of time researching developmental disorders, and was not convinced he had one. She preferred to give him more time to develop than rush to evaluate him. So she pulled him from the public pre-K program in December, enrolled him in a private program. Within three weeks in this “more supportive environment,” she saw a big difference in her son. 

For now, though, this mom is leaning toward private school so he can spend another year in pre-K, noting: “We’ll revisit public school in a couple of years. Luckily, we have the means to do that. Not everyone can.”

Dorothy Siegel, co-founder of ASD Nest, which runs 54 programs in public schools for children on the autism spectrum, said whenever she gets a report of a struggling child, her first question is always about their birth month. 

Siegel favors moving back the Dec. 31 deadline because, she said, “It would reduce the misery of children who are labeled something because they’re not learning at grade-level expectations, when the truth is, they’re too young to learn at that level.”

She believes that a different cut-off would reduce the number of children classified with disabilities. The money saved on special education services could be used to make sure every kindergarten and first-grade classroom had two teachers for a mixed group of students with and without IEPs.

But Souto-Manning, of Teachers College, warned that moving back the cutoff would be more of a burden on lower-income families. 

“It is wise to consider how [changing the cutoff] would inherently advantage wealthy families who could pay for childcare and preschool during the workday and further disadvantage families that have been historically disadvantaged,” she said.

Boys of color ‘perceived as older’

Naomi Peña, a Manhattan parent of a son with a December birthday.
Naomi Peña, a Manhattan parent of a son with a December birthday, believes the Dec. 31 cutoff should change.
PHOTO CREDIT: Amy Zimmer/Chalkbeat

The current system could also exacerbate inequities in the system, and not only because affluent families who would otherwise send their children with late birthdays to city public schools opt for private schools. 

“This is where communities of color become disenfranchised,” said Naomi Peña, a Manhattan parent of a son with a December birthday. “Parents think this is the only option you have — you don’t know what you don’t know. But the people who are most impacted are those of color. They are then dealing with the consequences of being labeled, and feeling like, what did I do wrong, and finding yourself in this world of IEPs, where there’s no one to hold your hand and explain it to you.”

After Peña pleaded unsuccessfully with her son’s school to do a second year of kindergarten, she moved him to a charter school for first grade; there he was permitted to repeat that grade, and by the end of that school year, he was reading chapter books. 

In addition to the newly uncovered correlation between disabilities and birth month, there are known correlations between students classified with disabilities and race, gender and income. Students of color, boys, and children from low-income families in New York City are classified with disabilities at significantly higher rates than other children, research has shown. 

A late birthday might play an additional role when it comes to such classifications.

“There’s a ton of research suggesting that young men of color are perceived as older and more culpable,” said David Kirkland, executive director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. 

“Generally, having an early start for school means good things, but that is not an exclusive narrative,” Kirkland said. “The routine of being disciplined early and excluded early can create a hostile learning situation if you’re a young man of color.”

The system isn’t ‘supportive’

Denise Clay, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist with two boys, a 6-year-old born at the end of September and a 4-year-old born in December, said she was grateful for the city’s Pre-K for All and 3-K program and understood how important it was for New York City families to have these free options. But she decided to opt out of the school system entirely, in favor of homeschooling, because of her sons’ late fall birthdays. 

She acknowledged that she’s privileged to have the flexibility and means to homeschool, but said the arrangement remains a “tremendous” financial and time sacrifice.

In her private practice, Clay works with parents to raise emotionally intelligent children and has seen many families of kids who are labeled with various disorders and struggle.

“I’m not sure the link is always made that their children are being put in situations they’re not ready for,” Clay said. “A lot of the work I do with parents is to become advocates for their kids, so their kids don’t end up being labeled and pathologized. They’re very quick to think their kids are broken, but the system isn’t supportive.”

Concerns about the city’s age cutoff often linger beyond kindergarten.

Kelly Pontano, whose Nov. 30-born son is now in fifth grade, said his late birthday continues to pose challenges. Just as he started kindergarten at 4, he would be starting middle school at 10 — possibly traveling long distances from his Park Slope home — and high school at 13. 

Year after year, she had a lot of teacher conferences at the beginning of the year to discuss her son’s maturity and behavior. About midway in the year, typically after winter break, he would settle in, she said, noting that now, as middle school approaches, she is considering moving her son to a private school.  

“He still wants to be playing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic and Pokemon,” Pontano said. “The idea that he’s going to be off to middle school where everyone is Snapchatting and Tik-Tokking is crazy.”