When Lila McNulty of Pittsburgh, PA, registered her twins for kindergarten, she was told that they would be separated unless she could provide a doctor’s note providing a medical reason to keep them together.
She felt intimidated and went along with the separation, and, luckily, it turned out to be fine. This was her first encounter with classroom separation. “In retrospect," she says, “I think a blanket separation policy is stupid."
What are the options, anyway, and who gets to decide? The advantages and disadvantages of each choice may also shed some light on how you choose your approach.
It’s important to remember that there’s no absolute rule that should determine whether multiples should be together or apart in school, says Eileen Pearlman, Ph.D. The founder and director of Twinsight, a resource for multiples and their families, as well as the co-author of “Raising Twins: What Parents Want to Know (And What Twins Want to Tell Them)," Dr. Pearlman is also an identical twin herself.
“This is a decision that is best approached at the beginning of each school year on a case-by-case basis," she says.
Options depend on the size of the school. If it’s small, for example, with only one class per grade, there’s only one option. If this is the case, then work with the school to see if the children can be included in different activities in line with their interests, recommends Edward Dragan, founder and principal consultant at Education Management Consulting, LLC, and a former principal of both a private and a public school.
If there’s more than one class in each grade level, Dragan recommends meeting with the principal before the school makes class assignments. If you want your twins separated, then explain the reasons why, and ask for this accommodation. “Any reasonable principal will cooperate," Dragan says. Make sure you meet with the principal well before the school year begins, as class assignments are typically made in late May or June, says Dragan.
Parents should make the decision in collaboration with the school, says Dr. Pearlman. After all, teachers may not yet have had experience with twins in their class — and even if they have, they haven’t met yours. As your twins get older, they may want to have a say in the decision as well, says Dragan.
Dr. Pearlman lists specific factors to consider in helping assess classroom placement:
What are the multiples’ zygosity (identical or fraternal) and gender? Girls are generally more attached to each other than boys, and identical twins tend to be closer than fraternal.
Do they have independent personalities, or are they dependent on each other?
Do they have previous experience being apart from each other?
What are their behaviors at preschool or school? Do they always stay together, or do they venture off on their own, away from their twin?
When narrating an event, do they take turns, or does one dominate?
In social situations, does one always hang back?
Do they have the same or different friends, or both?
Twins who are entering preschool or elementary school and haven’t spent much time apart may find this the most satisfactory arrangement, says Dr. Pearlman. The degree of dependence on each other that twins show is an important factor to consider, she adds.
“If there is a mutual or one-sided pronounced dependence between the twins, it may be important to start school together, with the understanding on the part of the teachers, parents, and twins themselves that the goal is for both to establish an independent presence in the classroom," says Dr. Pearlman.
McNulty’s kids were on the same team in sixth grade, but separated before and after, as a result of a lucky coincidence. She begged for them to be together in seventh; that didn’t happen, but “it all worked out, and if the kids don’t mind, I don’t mind," she says.
She likes them being together so they have another person to help them understand the assignments and bring the material home. But, “the advantage to separation is that they are very different people, and they respond better to different teachers and classroom styles," says McNulty.
Abby Scheer of Syracuse, NY, has twins who attend a small private school with only one class per grade, so they didn’t have a choice. But they’ve embraced the positives: help with homework and studying, especially when it comes to comparing notes (literally) with one another. “Another thing that can be helpful is that you might get two versions of the same story — whether it’s information on an assignment or some social issue — so you can put things in perspective and know when you might need to follow up with the teacher for more information," says Scheer.
Challenges have included sharing friends, as well as regular annoying sibling stuff, Scheer says. Her girls have distinct, strong personalities, so being together has worked for them. They always talk to the teachers at the beginning of the year about separating them as much as possible during the school day, and they also try not to compare them to each other. “At parent-teacher conferences, we talk about one at a time, and try hard not to mention the other until it’s her turn," says Scheer.
To help make them feel more like individuals, Scheer says, “Some years we had them celebrate their birthdays in their classroom on different days, and we’ve held separate birthday parties outside of school."
If the twins have different needs and skills, they may require separate classrooms, perhaps even separate schools, as they grow older, says Dr. Pearlman. “A twin relationship in which one child is completely overshadowed by the personality, academic, physical, or social accomplishments of the other may make separate classes an appropriate option," she says.
Distraction can also lead to disruptive behavior in one or both twins. “It is not unusual for a child who is not enjoying the same rate of achievement as his twin to act out to the detriment of himself and his twin," says Dr. Pearlman. “Also, one twin who is feeling eclipsed by the achievements of his twin may cease to perform." Another benefit of separate classes is that these give each twin a much-needed break from the other’s constant presence.
Meg Muckenhoupt, of Massachusetts, has twins in separate classrooms. Because they’re identical, keeping them apart helps prevent confusion. Their larger issue is that they compete with each other, so “keeping them separate keeps the peace," says Muckenhoupt.
Dragan thinks there are more disadvantages than advantages to keeping twins together. Parents of twins he has consulted want to see their children develop and grow as individuals. Separating twins after kindergarten allows them to do so, and also keeps teachers from comparing them. “In most schools, there will be many opportunities for twins to be together during the day — lunch time, playground, assemblies, participation in plays, combined class trips, and other times," says Dragan. “This presents a ‘somewhere in between’ option when they’re separated in homeroom and other classes."
The general consensus seems to be that continuous evaluation of school placement is necessary. “What may be best one year for your twins may not be best the next year," says Dr. Pearlman. “Consult with your twins, the school, and yourselves regarding the best placement."