When One Twin Is Held Back in School and How It Affects Their Emotional Well-Being

I’ll never forget being kept back in the fourth grade while my twin sister, Fay Louise, moved ahead. I’m sure it was the final proof I needed as a frail, indecisive child to convince me that I was inferior. For years, I believed I wasn’t as smart as my sister. I refused to give myself any credit for having been ill and kept back for that reason. I was “dumb” and I played that record over and over, a thousand times.

This is a quote from a book by Betty Jean Case titled We Are Twins, But Who Am I? Although the book was written more than two decades ago, much of its subject matter still resonates with twins and parents of twins today. Mrs. Case was a fraternal twin and the grandmother of fraternal twin boys. It is curious that other twin experts who are also twins have written about their separation from their twin in kindergarten. Nancy Segal writes about her short-lived, unsettling kindergarten separation from her sister in the book Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts About Twinsas does Barbara Klein in her book Alone in the Mirror: Twins in Therapy.

At times the issue of deciding whether or not to advance one twin and keep the other one back in school crops up in light of developmental and academic discrepancies. Most of us are keenly aware of expected developmental differences. For example, in the early years, girls develop keener cognitive skills faster than boys. Moreover, fraternal same-sex twin pairs can be incredibly diverse in terms of gross motor skills, fine motor capacities, and personality traits. Parents feel uneasy about holding one child back in kindergarten and moving up the other. They are conflicted because they feel as if they are punishing the “first-grade-ready twin.” Shall his development be impeded owing to his sibling’s slower timetable?

Certainly most childhood parent educators will advise holding back both twins, especially if they are boys. Often boys who have fall birthdays spend an extra year in preschool in order to be ready to handle the challenges of peer groups and self-control when they reach kindergarten. My fraternal twin sons, who have January birthdays, gained so much having that extra year of socialization and fun in their preschool. Also, a parent who sees a divergent developmental lag during the preschool years can use that time to find the extra help to support the twin who is struggling. Early intervention is best. If the preschool has a morning and afternoon program, the twins can attend separately, thereby minimizing the comparisons.

In light of the fact that most people conceptualize that twins must be the epitome of closeness, sameness, and togetherness, it is highly disturbing for young twins to be in different grades. Peers are constantly monitoring one another to find out similarities and differences. Unfortunately, the assumption that one twin is dumber, slower, or immature will automatically be attributed to the twin who is being held back. I feel that the optimal solution in these circumstances is to make remedial help available to the struggling twin so that he can maximize his developmental potential. Otherwise, I have advised many parents to find a separate school for each twin.

While this may sound extreme, I believe it is the most humane strategy to help twins manage divergent academic and social differences. Our culture’s propensity to expect twins to be the same while they are expected to be different makes twinship a challenging conundrum. A few months ago a mother of teenage twin daughters contacted me about how to manage her one daughter’s insistence that her twin not attend the same high school next September. This teenage girl had dyed her hair and all but refused to speak to her sister at school. She had established her own group of friends and wanted to be liberated from the unit identity. This mom did not have any ability to appreciate her daughter’s burgeoning autonomy. She kept reiterating that twins need to be together and take care of one another.

Certainly, as parents, it is our job to take primary care of our multiples. That is precisely why it can be such an agonizing decision to decide whether or not to hold back both twins when one is ready to advance. In the case of younger children, it is emotionally healthier in the long run not to advance one and keep the other back. Peers, society at large, and our cultural perspectives about twins needing to be “identical” have the propensity to create cruel and punitive perspectives when twins don’t deliver the expected identicality. It’s best to evaluate twins’ progress year by year so that more knowledge about their particular skills, interests, and sociability can be better assessed—remembering that development is nonlinear. While parents feel pressured about their children’s academic achievements, please remember that over a lifetime it is the emotional realm that ends up having much more lasting significance and overarching influence.

The stigma of being different also occurs when one twin is struggling in his classroom while his brother is not. I am well-acquainted with a set of parents whose identical eight-year-old twin boys attend the same school but are in separate classrooms. One of the boys had a tremendously difficult year as his attention deficit disorder had not yet been diagnosed or treated. This mom feels that her son who does not have ADHD was stigmatized just the same because teachers and peers tend to lump identical twins together—now labeling one as a troublemaker and the other as a probable troublemaker-to-be.

When one twin is struggling with more than just expected developmental challenges, parents need to be vigilant about making sure that the healthy twin does not become emotionally burdened by being expected to take care of his sibling. While care-taking, empathetic behavior between twins is a highly prized and coveted aspect of the twin connection, it is important not to take advantage of the caring twin’s good nature. There are lots of conflicting feelings going on in the mind of the nonaffected twin that will need to be articulated more and more as the twins mature.

Twin experts are habitually asked their opinions about placing twins in the same or separate classroom. The conventional wisdom agreed upon by the experts I read is that each case must be reviewed for its individual merit—surely there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Specifically, in light of these facts, parents need to educate themselves about the policies and regulations of their chosen school, since not all educators adhere to the importance of parental input. Moreover, parents need to make an honest assessment about their twins’ emotional readiness to be separated. As evidenced, twins are accustomed to being together. Thus, it is incumbent upon parents and school personnel to take this into account when deciding the school placement plan.

Aside from having a special needs twin, I would not advocate keeping one twin back and having the other advance. I would wait out the normal developmental lags that occur and evaluate the twins on an ongoing basis. However, if I were to begin to see significant social or academic differences that were becoming glaringly obvious to the twins, their peers, and their teachers, I would consider finding an alternative school placement to help protect both of them from the wickedly cruel onslaught of constant comparison and competition. If the possibility of attending two different schools were not an option, I would attempt to find educational tutoring outside of school to continue to support the twin who is struggling. In addition, I would also look for an after-school activity that the challenged twin enjoys, such as sports, art, or computers. He should attend this activity without his twin so that he can feel masterful and skilled on his own.

When our children are very young, we feel as if every decision we make regarding their future is monumental and life altering. Since we have to wait and see how they will develop in terms of skills, potential, talents, and motivation, we have to exercise our best judgment. The journey is growing up together with our families and watching development unfold and blossom.

This article was recently published at https://www.twiniversity.com/


Dr. Joan Friedman will be leading a three-day workshop at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, on July 28-30, 2017. “The Same but Different: Understanding the Connection between Twins” is for families of twins, twins themselves, and those health professionals seeking a better understanding of the unique experience that is twins. 

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