Twins: The School Years

Same classrooms, or separate? What if one sibling is not doing as well academically as the other? We spoke to experts, including parents and multiples themselves, for some guidance.

While most of us enter the world solo, an increasing number of babies arrive in pairs. Worldwide, there are estimated to be approximately 125 million twins and triplets, including 10 million identical twins. The American twin birthrate was one in 60 in 1971 and now nearly one in 30 babies is born as part of a pair.

This means that schools are educating many sets of twins this generation. Many researchers and
parents agree that the educational needs of twins are different from those of single born children.

Types of Twins

It is helpful for us as parents and educators to have an understanding of the different categories of twins. Identical twins come from one fertilized egg (monozygotic) and then divide to form two separate embryos. They have the same genetic makeup (DNA) and are always the same sex. Fraternal, or non-identical, twins (dizygotic) come from two fertilized eggs and are as genetically similar as any other siblings. Fraternal twins can be the same sex or different sexes. Higher order multiples, such as triplets and quadruplets, can actually be different combinations of identical and fraternal.

In addition to biological varieties of twins, there are of course personality differences, and different levels of independence and closeness. Dr. Pat Preedy, a school administrator in England, and Professor David Hay of Curtin University in Western Australia, identified three main categories describing the relationship between multiples based on their research.

These categories are:
• The “extreme individual,” who dislikes being a multiple, tries to dominate, is overly competitive, plays mostly alone, and doesn’t want to share friends

• The “mature dependent,” who is happy together or apart and is supportive of co-twin, and may share or have separate friends

• The “closely coupled,” who is unhappy when apart, responds to co-twin’s name, uses “twin” language (cryptophasia), and feels like a unit instead of an individual. A twin described as “closely coupled” may also be unable to recognize his or her own image in the mirror, may slow down or speed up speech to keep together with co-twin, and may have few or no individual friends.

Same or Separate Classrooms?

Christina Baglivi Tinglof, mother of three (including twin boys) and author of Parenting School-Age Twins and Multiples, says “the number one cause of conflict between parents of multiples and school administrators” is whether to allow twins to be placed in the same class for kindergarten.

twins in school

Barbara Blum, mother of boy/girl twins, requested that her children be placed together for kindergarten in a public school. She wanted her twins in the same classroom because she felt that they would “transition better to school and new routines” if they could check in with each other throughout the day. Her request was flatly denied. She eventually found another school that reluctantly agreed to place her twins together for kindergarten.

Most schools don’t have an official policy about the placement on twins. However, many automatically assign twins and other multiples to separate homeroom classrooms without welcoming parent input. Unlike other siblings, cousins, or best friends, twins have been together since conception and have a unique bond. Many studies of multiples have shown that their placement in the classroom is best if evaluated on a case-by-case basis instead of a blanket policy of separation, even beyond kindergarten. It is best to revisit class placement each school year.

Dr. Preedy noticed that teachers tended to place children together or apart based upon past experience rather than an assessment of the children. She noted that: “If the twins were ‘mature dependents,’ it didn’t matter—they [were] well adjusted and able to cope. If twins were ‘closely coupled,’ they often found separation extremely traumatic. And ‘extreme individuals’ together can be very disruptive.” Her conclusion is to assess each child before making a decision on classroom assignments.

Michelle Hartmann is the mother of 5-year-old girl/boy twins who attend a Montessori school. The children are currently in the same class, although the option exists to have them separated. “My husband is a twin,” Hartmann says, “and he felt it was important, at this age, that the twins be together.” Hartmann is encouraged since her kids “seem to flourish and encourage each other
by being in the same classroom.”

My own second cousin Jeanne Hajjar, an identical twin, remembers attending school in the 1960s: “It was very hard the first time they separated us in the fourth grade,” which happened because the teachers had a hard time telling them apart and the school wanted the twins to avoid competition. For this set of very close identical twins, being in separate classes was difficult. She remembers being noticed more because she was a twin and that teachers often showed favoritism towards one. “Joan and I were (and still are) each other’s best friend,” she says.

Tracy Weidman and her twin brother attended school in the 1970s and were always in separate classrooms. “I think for us separate classes was the right thing,” Weidman says. She felt it helped their independence, and their mom always encouraged separate interests. “We always got lots of comments and questions about being twins, and I remember feeling different in a good way when I was younger because I was a twin,” Weidman recalls. She enjoyed having her twin nearby for friendship and support even though they were in separate homerooms.

twins in school

Renee Zaldivar, a teacher, says that she and her twin brother were placed in the same kindergarten class per their mother’s request. “Neither one of us suffered from any separation anxiety when we went to kindergarten,” she recalls, and having her twin in the same room was comforting for both. From first grade on, however, they were in separate classes—a rough time for a while because she was without her parents and her twin for the first time.

Zaldivar was cautious and conservative in school and her brother was “more outgoing and easy to go astray.” She remembers assuming a motherly role trying to keep her twin brother to “stay on the straight and narrow, though he never listened.”

Tinglof feels that in boy/girl twins, since girls usually mature faster than boys do, it is not uncommon for girl twins to “mother” their twin brothers. She feels that separate classrooms as twins grow older may help the boy twin become more independent. Older girls who “mother” their twin brother may eventually resent the role of caretaker, so separation in upper grades may be beneficial for both. Tinglof cautions, however, that there is no “one size fits all” solution to placement of twins in school.

Differences in Achievement

Often identical twins have similar interests and aptitude. IQ scores for identicals usually only vary by a point or two. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, “can vary tremendously when it comes to academics, athletics, and even artistic abilities,” Tinglof says. Progress in school may be particularly highlighted in multiples and can lead to comparisons by teachers, parents, and by the students themselves. It can be hurtful to the twin who is less academically successful. Conversely, there can be feelings of guilt for the excelling twin as he or she is aware of the pain of the less achieving twin.

If one twin is significantly struggling in school, parents and teachers may consider grade retention. This decision has many implications, especially where twins are concerned. “Nothing calls attention to differences in twins more than when one repeats a grade,” says Tinglof. Parents should consider getting the struggling twin evaluated by a school psychologist to get a proper diagnosis before deciding on retention. If the student is merely behind in specific skills, perhaps tutoring may be all that is needed. In other cases, special education may be required. If retention is the only solution, parents should “strongly consider transferring the struggling twin to a different school so he’ll be out of range of unwanted comparisons,” Tinglof suggests.

“I always tell my twins that it’s okay to feel both jealously and pride toward each other when only one gets something that both have tried to obtain,” Tinglof says. She encourages her boys to support one another, and emphasizes that they are each an important member of the family unit. She cautions parents never to diminish the accomplishments of one twin to spare the feelings of the other. If one has a chance to be in a gifted or advanced program at school, for example, and the other does not, parents should take advantage of the opportunity for the achieving twin. Remind each child what he or she is good at and encourage each to excel in his or her own areas of interest.

All of the adult twins I interviewed saw their twin status in a positive light. They each felt a unique sense of pride and a bond with their co-twin that was different from their other siblings. They felt good about having their twin in the same grade for support and friendship. When parents and teachers recognize and are sensitive to the unique concerns of twins and other multiples, the school years are smoother for children who happen to be born together.

Louise Hajjar Diamond is a school guidance counselor, a freelance writer, and mother of two single-born children.

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