5 July 2000

Birthdays And Correlation To Achievement

by Kate Melville

Being born in the early part of a year may affect a child's success in sport, school and self-esteem according to a University of Alberta researcher. Dr. Gus Thompson, from the departments of psychiatry and public health sciences, has been studying how the "relative age" effect contributes to achievement.

He found that a disproportionate number of students who completed suicide were younger (by months) than their classmates--chances were higher their birthdays were closer to the cutoff date for entry in Grade 1.

Similarly, the birth dates of high academic achievers generally fell in the first part of the school year compared to their younger classmates who don't often fare as well. Children who are younger than their classmates tend not to achieve as well, be classed as learning disabled and show adjustment difficulties. Using anonymous computer records for 1,200 children this spring, Dr. Thompson and a colleague, Dr. Roger Barnsley, of Kamloops, B.C., found the self-esteem levels of students now in Grades 3 to 9 in Edmonton public schools corresponded with their age entering Grade 1. Students who were between 6 1/2 an 6 3/4 years old -- the eldest of the bunch - had the highest self- esteem of all.

Competitive performance can also be affected. Elite athletes, for example, are much more likely to be born early in the "sport eligibility year" than in the latter months, he found.

When looking at the distribution of birth months of players in two Canadian major junior hockey leagues, the chances of succeeding in high calibre hockey is dramatically reduced for those born at the end of the year.

"Children often enter these activities around the age of six, which is a very developmental age," said Thompson. "If children in hockey, for example, are older and are perceived by others as smarter, that cycle will continue. The birth month may start it, but a perception of self-confidence continues it."

He recently presented his findings at the annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Los Angeles and will present them again at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention this fall.