Youngest pupils in class more likely to suffer from depression, study finds

Younger learners in school years are a third more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues, researchers find

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - September 18, 2019: Tour of Apple International School, Library. Wednesday the 18th of September 2019. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The youngest pupils in classrooms are at greater risk of suffering from mental health problems, a major study has revealed.

Researchers in the UK found those who were a number of months junior to classmates in the academic school year were 30 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with depression, intellectual disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

After reviewing the electronic medical records of more than one million school-aged children in the UK, the findings concluded that younger learners within a given academic year showed a higher rate of childhood mental health diagnoses.

The records were divided into four age categories based on the child’s age within the school year.

Even a difference in age of nine months can ignite feelings of superiority and inferiority among classmates

The study, carried out by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, was published in JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal, on Monday.

While the authors did not explain the exact links to early onset mental health issues, Gail Gallagher, school counsellor at Dubai British School, told The National early intervention is needed to support children who feel they are forced to keep up with pupils more mature, both physically and mentally.

“I have always felt strongly about the link between the younger children in class being more at risk of depression,” she said.

“Children in the same school year can be almost a whole year apart in terms of age, which can cause a number of issues.”

Not only does the age gap highlight the physical differences between pupils, younger classmates could find it difficult to strike up relationships with older peers due to differing maturity levels.

“These are all factors which can have a huge detrimental impact on a child’s confidence,” Ms Gallagher said.

“Younger children tend to identify with each other according to age and height, they make sense of things numerically.

“So even a difference in age of nine months can ignite feelings of superiority and inferiority among classmates.”

Mother-of-three, Anita Crawford, 41, said her daughter, Ruby, now 16, repeated a school year in 2012 because she was struggling to keep up with her classmates.

“Her birthday is in August so she has always been the youngest in her class,” said Ms Crawford, who lives in Dubai.

“When she was nine, my husband and I made the decision to keep her back a year in school and it was definitely the right move for her.”

It was the school that alerted Ms Crawford of the difficulties Ruby was having two months into her first term.

“She was significantly younger than the others kids, she was struggling with the curriculum and just wasn’t emotionally on par with her peers,” she said.

After starting her new class, the school noted a huge improvement in her academic performance and Ms Crawford said her confidence improved ten-fold.

In summer 2020, Ruby will be sitting her GCSE examinations; exams she would have had to sat this summer had she not moved a school year.

“She would not have coped if she has to take them this year," Ms Crawford said.

“Now she is more confident, more in tune with her peers and mature enough to face the emotional stress that will come with her exams.”

According to recent World Health Organisation statistics, mental health conditions in 2018 accounted for 16 per cent of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10 to 19. Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.

Mother-of-one, Priyanka Wade, 39, from Dubai, has often questioned if her daughter is at a disadvantage in class.

“My daughter’s birthday is in July, she’s the youngest in her class and I worry whether I am overloading her with academics,” she said.

While she didn’t have any concerns when she first enrolled her daughter in Year 1, the age gap between classmates has caused some doubts.

“She is nine now and most people in her class are 10, some nearly a whole year older than her,” she said.

“Sometimes I feel if she was one grade lower she would be so much better academically, but I would not be scared to make that move if future concerns arise.”

To help bridge the gap between older and younger pupils in class, Dubai-based school counsellor, Amy Lewis, said teachers and school staff need to upskill pupils by building confidence and self-esteem.

"We need to put preventative measures in place before an issue develops," she told The National.

Working in a British curriculum school in Jumeirah Park, Ms Lewis said better recognition of childhood depression as a problem will help both the health and education sectors tackle the issue more effectively.

“Resilience is not high in kids any more so we need to instil that in pupils. We need to equip them with the tools to cope with and tackle difficulties they may face.

“We cannot only deal with the issue once it has been raised. Prevention is key.”

Both Ms Gallagher and Ms Lewis said their schools have introduced an annual wellbeing survey to identify any issues pupils may be having in school. Their school leaders and pastoral staff have also introduced extracurricular social skills groups and buddy systems, where older peers mentor younger pupils during the school day, to help build confidence among the pupil population.