School Placement Policies for Twins
"We were blindsided." That's how Kathy Dolan felt when she went to sign her twin sons up for kindergarten. It had been a tough year for the family – both of Dolan's parents were seriously ill – and her main concern about kindergarten was that her boys be kept together to avoid stressing them further. The twins were healthy, well-adjusted and had been in the same preschool class with no problems.
"I was told, 'That's not possible,'" says Dolan, of Queens, N.Y. It took a note from her sons' pediatrician before the school would allow them to be kept together for kindergarten. When the boys went to first grade last fall, the struggle repeated itself, even though Dolan's sons had been doing well in the same classroom.
As Dolan learned how common forced separation of multiples is, and how hard it can be on families and children, she decided to do something about it. "It's discrimination," says Dolan. "Any time you have an across-the-board policy based on a circumstance of a person's birth – well, that says discrimination to me."
Dolan's organization, Parenting in Education: A Child's Entitlement, is perhaps the largest of many groups asking for legislation that will give families a voice in their children's placement – and encourage schools to look at each set of multiples on their own needs and merits.
Minnesota became the first state to pass the so-called "Twin Bill" legislation. Parents in Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California are working to introduce similar legislation.
This is not a trivial issue, says Nancy Segal, professor of developmental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (Dutton, 1999). As an expert on multiples, Segal gets many calls each year from parents who find school administrators unsympathetic to their concerns. "We are seeing a dramatic increase in the twinning rate, so now is an ideal time to set the right policy regarding twins and school," she says.
Old Beliefs Still Prevalent
The conventional wisdom in many school districts is that separating multiples solves a variety of problems, and allows each child the most opportunity for personal growth. Unfortunately, belief about separation of multiple pairs is often based more in old wives' tales than in science. There's just no research that says separation would be best for all multiple birth children, says John Mascazine, an associate professor of education at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio.
"There are many anecdotes about twins and other multiples that have been retold with great interest," says Mascazine. "I believe some of these stories have contributed to stereotypical myths about multiples. And sometimes such information filters into school decisions."
For instance, the belief that multiples won't develop as individuals unless separated may come from old case studies of twin pairs growing up in bizarre and abusive circumstances. These pairs became extremely dependant on each other, and separation was an important part of their rehabilitation. This isn't the situation for most multiples.
Another common misunderstanding is that people tend to generalize, assuming that if they know one set of multiples, every other set will be like the one they know, says Mascazine. But just as with singletons, each set of multiples is unique. This also ties into the belief that multiples will always struggle with comparison and competitive issues, which is often not the case.
"Most siblings reconcile and deal quite well with issues of being compared," says Mascazine. "The challenge is to help non-twins avoid projecting their expectations to compete upon same-age siblings."
Angela Drinkwater from New York would agree. She is a mom of identical twins and a member of an identical twin pair. She and her sister, Alexandra, got to experience both the same and separate classes growing up. "When my sister was in another class, people would look at me and say, 'Oh, that's Angela, she must be just like her sister Alexandra who is in our class,'" she says. "I feel that when [we were] in the same class, people got to know us as individuals, just as our family that saw us together all the time did." Drinkwater's twin sons are in the same classroom, and she notes that their peers can usually tell them apart right away.
What Research Actually Says
There's just no research to support the idea that arbitrarily separating same-age siblings into separate classes at school is the best policy, says Mascazine. There is, however, a good bit of research that suggests that being together may work well for many multiples, especially when they are very young. Twins and multiples often find great comfort in knowing where their sibling is.
"It's similar to the emotional security parents feel knowing where their children are playing and just knowing they are nearby and safe," says Mascazine. But for many multiples, the bond is even more intense – after all, they've known each other and been physically close to each other since conception! The feeling of stability can lead to a greater ability to concentrate on learning, and can make it easier for children to settle in to school.
Having the same teacher, class work and social opportunities can also offer benefits during the early school years. The similarity of their experiences can make school more gratifying for multiples, even if they aren't working on the same projects or even sitting near each other, says Mascazine.
Is it ever necessary to separate? Yes, says Mascazine. In cases where same age siblings have quite different levels of ability, when one sibling's behavior is extremely disruptive to the other, when there is extreme competition between the siblings (competition that is stressful and non-productive for the siblings themselves) or when siblings have extremely different social skill development, separation should be considered.
"Some multiples will do better being separated, of course – the point is that there should not be a single policy for multiples, just as we do not treat all non-multiples the same," says Segal.
Flexibility Is Best
The wisest and most beneficial policy is the flexible policy, agrees Mascazine. "The research is overwhelmingly on the side of having a flexible policy that considers each set of multiples on their own needs and merits," he says. "Each set of multiples is really unique in their own relationship. Policies that do not consider the needs of each set of siblings will not adequately work for them and their school needs."
Julie Robinson's twins are only 18 months old. However, she became involved with twin bill legislation in Texas after learning of the struggles some other multiple birth families have faced. "With any type of change, you will find those that resist," says Robinson. "But I'm hopeful that once this change is made the legislation will benefit everyone. We simply want equality for all multiple birth children."