The Multiple School Years: Should “Multiples” Be Separated In School?

Together or apart?

Concerning separation in school, Helen Koch (1966, p134) states:

“There have been endless assertions about the hazards of not keeping twin-pair members apart at school, and the time for disjoining is usually affirmed to be when the children enter school. It is a common beedis-joining usually affirmed to be when the children enter school. It is a common belief that twins on the entrance to school have, because of their youth, fabulous powers of adjustment and that dissociation from the sib for a few hours per day will be no more serious than the separation of the child from the home situation during school hours. It is maintained that, while in any case, the twin pair will tend to be frivolous, be concerned about favoritism and being cheated, be given to indulging in self-comparisons and so forth, all this being intensified by the twins being enrolled in the same class and subjected to the constant contrasting that goes on at the hands of their teachers, classmates, and school associates.”

“The best policy is a flexible policy.”

The start of school is frequently the time that parents focus upon whether multiple birth children should be together in the same class or separated into parallel classes.

For many parents, there is no choice as many schools allocate children into classes without consulting with parents or without taking into account the potential needs of multiple birth children.

Our work indicates that both Australian and British parents and teachers frequently have strong opinions about separation. Many schools have policies (written and unwritten) declaring that multiples should be separated to help them to develop as individuals or should be kept together as multiples are a natural unit. Some schools have rigid organizational policies that fail to take into account the needs of multiples, e.g., classes are arranged in alphabetical order or birthdate, so multiples have to be kept together. There is no right or wrong answer about separation in school. The needs of each child must be considered both as an individual and as a multiple. No decision should be irreversible? Flexibility is the keyword both for parents and teachers.

Separation of multiples is the most common single cause of conflict between teachers and parents. This section outlines some of the arguments for and against separation and provides a checklist (see below) to help parents and teachers make a decision about what is best for their multiples for that year. It is important to emphasize that no one can ever class separation as “good” or “bad” for twins in general. The issue is whether it is more appropriate or less appropriate for this set of multiples at this time in their development. There may be excellent reasons given as to why separation is the best thing for these children, but there may be just as compelling reasons why it may be the worst thing for them.

Advantages of separation in school

  • The children can operate as individuals within the class situation.
  • The teacher is more likely to compare the multiple children against the peer group instead of his or her co-multiple(s)
  • The multiple birth child can operate without his or her co-multiple telling, particularly if he or she is in trouble
  • The multiple birth child has an opportunity to make friends and socialize as an individual (although this may not be the case at playtimes and in after-school activities)

Disadvantages of separation in school

  • Multiple birth children may need the support of each other particularly if they have not experienced separation before school
  • Even if multiple birth children are comfortable when separated, they may need to be able to check up on what the other is doing
  • If one child is dominant, the dominant child may lose confidence as he or she no longer has his or her co-multiple(s) to organize
  • The children may be compared more at home particularly if one appears to be making more progress, e.g., gets a reading book first
  • The teachers are less likely to understand how the children operate as multiples, e.g., being upset if one is ill or in trouble

Issues to consider

It is important to recognize that decisions about separation cannot be based on just one consideration. The following ten issues are factors that may have to be discussed.

  1. Common myths about separation
  2. No decision is irreversible
  3. Home and school are not the same
  4. Communication
  5. Multiples are not in school 24 hours a day
  6. Should multiples be involved in the decision?
  7. Separating multiples means comparing teachers
  8. What about schools with only one class?
  9. Is separation ever essential?
  10. Remember the needs of the multiples


1. Common myths about separation

The Australian Twins in School Survey and the UK survey revealed that many teachers had strong ideas about why separation may be valuable for multiples. While such common views appear to be very sensible, there is no research evidence to support them. They may apply to particular sets of multiples, but not to multiples in general.

“Separation is better for the individual development of multiples.”

Well over 90% of all teachers considered this the most important value of separation. There are case reports of some unfortunate twin pairs reared in very bizarre circumstances where they became totally dependent upon each other and where separation was an important part of their treatment. However, there is absolutely NO evidence from any large-scale studies of multiples that separation helps intellectual or emotional development in the majority of multiples.

“Separation helps teachers get to know each child better.”

Again this sounds very sensible, but can as easily be turned to imply the opposite. School is only a modest part of a child’s life and much happens outside. It could be argued that teachers will know multiple children better if they also know something about their co-multiple(s) with whom so much time is spent outside the classroom.

“Confusion by the teacher may upset multiples.”

Obviously, this applies more to identical twins. However, multiples do get used to being mistaken for each other. It is something they have to learn to live with throughout their lives. What matters much more is not having other co-multiples getting the credit for something you did, or you get the blame for something they did!

2. No decision is irreversible

Separation is not something that must be decided before the start of school and adhered to rigidly thereafter. In the Australian study, three out of every four sets were kept together in the first year of school and often it was the school that advised they keep each other company in this first year in a new environment. Separation became more common in the second year of school, and by the third year under half the twins were still in the same class.

It must be remembered that children do change, especially during the first year of school:

“The twins I teach (as in previous years) have been in their first year of school. They start off fairly dependent on each other because they are immature, but as they get more security from the other children in the class, they seem to go their own ways and become single members in the class. I’ve found in times of trouble they protect and support each other. That’s when I just wish the others in the class were so lucky!”

Of more importance, about one in four of the sets separated one year, we’re back together in the same class the next year. For various reasons, separation at this stage had not worked out for these pairs. Schools aware of the needs of multiple birth children build flexibility into the system. Parents, teachers and the children themselves need to be reassured that there are continuously monitoring and opportunities to change the situation if the need arises.

3. Home and school are not the same

Competition between multiples is one of the most common reasons for separation. It is therefore worth considering where this competition occurs. In the Australian study, the competition was much more often reported by parents than by teachers. More importantly, there was very little agreement over such competition? It generally occurred at home or at school but not both.

Therefore just because multiples are very competitive at home, separation at school may be irrelevant to their behavior. Alternatively, if the teachers complain about competition at school and it is absent at home, it is worth considering whether anything at school may be leading to such behavior. Sometimes other children may encourage multiples against each other and will continue to do this even if they are in different classes.

4. Communication

Any decisions about schooling require both parents and teachers to have adequate access to the other perspective on the multiples

“I was teaching one of the identical twin girls in year one as the policy of the school was to separate them. I and the other teacher felt things were going OK. What we did not know was that the girls were having quite devastating nightmares that were having such an impact at home. When they were put back together, there were no more problems at home-but a problem for the teacher in identifying each twin!”

The lack of parent-teacher communication goes further than specific instances of what happens at home or at school. Each may even be unaware of what help the children are getting. In the Australian Twins in School Survey, many parents did not know their twins were getting extra reading assistance at school. Conversely, many teachers did not know the children were getting extra help outside school, especially for speech and language difficulties.

The checklist introduced at the end of this post is designed to improve the sharing of information and hence to make the most-informed decision about what is best for multiples both as individuals and as multiples.

5. Multiples are not in school 24 hours a day

Separation is sometimes seen as the panacea. It is the “cure” for any problem in the multiples, whether this is competition, social immaturity or delays in language or reading skills. Such a simplistic approach was first observed by Helen Koch in her large study of Chicago twins in the 1960s and certainly applied in the Australian Twins in School Survey? Separation was much more likely whenever there was any problem in the twins.

It must be remembered that multiples do not spend their entire lives at school. If one or more have reading problems, this will persist whether they are together or apart, unless something appropriate is done in the way of intervention. While separation in school may be part of a program to support the learning and development of multiples, it cannot be the entire solution. Attention must be paid to changing the situation at home if the children are competitive or to providing appropriate intervention if there is some other problem.

The message for both teachers and parents is clear: if separation is being seen as part of the solution to a problem in the multiples, what else in their lives at home and at school must be changed as well to ensure a successful outcome. Sometimes separation can actually increase problems between multiples. One recent study we did in Australia had boy-girl pairs working together to solve problems. The more time these twins had been separated, the more disruptive their behavior towards each other. By being separated, they had lost the skills to function as a unit. Their behavior was also more directed to getting (or diverting) attention from the other twin. Furthermore, the issue is not just about how to organize homework. These young people will spend their lives as multiples, and we need to think about how best to help them develop ways to handle the inevitable conflicts.

6. Should multiples be involved in the decision?

In an ideal world, separation should occur when the children think it is a good idea. Often some way through primary school or as they move to secondary school, multiples may feel that it is worth trying a year apart. However one has to be careful when taking the childrens views into account. They may want to be together because they are getting much more attention this way and are not having to develop the social skills the rest of the population needs. Or they may have fought just before they were asked and their decision to separate may only last an hour or two! Any involvement by the children must complement decisions by the parents and teachers and cannot replace these.

7. Separating multiples means comparing teachers

One obvious point about separation is often forgotten. Yet it can dramatically increase problems and rivalry between the multiples. This is that multiples in different classes inevitably means a comparison of teachers, something teachers may find unsettling when they think about it! The decision about separation involves personalities and cannot be considered as a purely academic one. It must be thought of in very concrete terms- this year “Mr. Bloggs” will teach one child and “Mrs. Smith” the other(s). Suppose “Mrs. Smith” is a teacher with an infectious enthusiasm for learning and “Mr. Bloggs” is a much more authoritarian teacher. Then one child may come home with a very positive attitude about learning while the other(s) may feel exactly the opposite. It may be difficult for the school staff to cope with direct comparisons, but it is better that such issues be considered before the children are separated, than after serious differences between teachers have become apparent. At this time even more, attention would be focussed on differences in teaching style.

It is often impossible to know just which teachers children will have in the next year. For single-born children, this may not matter, but it may be a vital issue for multiples where separation is being planned, and schools need to recognize this when the decision is being made.

8. What about schools with only one class?

With many schools especially in country regions, the whole question of separation is irrelevant if there is only one class. Yet quite a few points may still be useful since we have emphasized separation is not the only solution to some of the difficulties that can arise. In all situations attention must be paid to the other children in the class and how they behave towards the multiples, possibly encouraging competition between them. Parents, teachers and other adults need to think if their own behavior may encourage problems in the twins.

Geographic separation within the class may be a better solution than a separation between classes for those multiples who are always concerned about what their co-multiple(s) is doing and are disruptive as they try to check on this. So the country school is not necessarily at a disadvantage just because separation into different classes is not an available option. Work within the one class and at home may be just as successful.

9. Is separation ever essential?

While separation of multiples must never be a routine response to their presence in the school or an essential part of any intervention, there are obvious situations where it is the only realistic solution to problems or potential problems. Typical situations would be where the children are very dependent upon each other and where they may overreact to the other being singled-out. For example, if the teacher spoke first to one twin, the other would nearly always do something to divert attention. Separation may be the best response to such behavior, but if the same behavior is happening at home as well as at school, some additional intervention may well be needed.

Another situation would be where the children greatly restrict each other’s activities. Perhaps one will never move on to the next task unless he or she is sure the other(s) have finished. Many adults will have noticed such “checking” behavior by multiples, and they have to decide whether it is reasonable in its extent, or whether it is causing serious disruption to the children and possibly to the whole class. While separation is often useful in this latter situation, one has to ask why it happens.

Are the twins so low in self-esteem that they must do exactly the same as the other? Or are the other children always comparing the twins and expecting them to do exactly the same?

Another situation is that of differences in ability where one multiple really feels overshadowed by the other. This can so easily become a vicious circle with one child going ahead as they gain more confidence each time they do better than their twin, while the other retreats further and further into a situation of helplessness. Separation may be a solution, but is not the only step needed, as attention needs to be paid to the other children?  Attitude toward the situation. Perhaps they always focus on the differences between the multiples in a way they do not between the single-born members of the class? Multiples even in separate classes can still compare their abilities and achievements at home unless this is checked in some way. Not just the parents need to think about this: what about the grandparents who always give something special to the twin who brings home a better report?

Thus the message must be that separation must often be accompanied by other changes if it is to achieve its goal of helping the multiples.

Separation is worth considering if:

  • one child is markedly more able than the other(s)
  • one child perceives himself or herself as failing
  • there is markedly similar progress with one child leveling up or down so that they can keep together
  • there is disruptive behavior where multiples form a “fatal combination.”
  • one or both children are dependent unable to mix or relate with other children
  • There is intense competitiveness so that the child?s main goal is to keep up with or beat their co-multiple(s)
  • one or both children polarise (go to opposite extremes)
  • there is a lack of privacy where one multiple birth child constantly reports to parents about the activities and progress of the other

10. Remember the needs of the multiples

Disagreement between parents and the school over separation can too easily become a power struggle over who is determining the options for the children.

“I know what is best for my family.”

” I know what is best for children in my school.”

It is worth considering that the children may be less affected by the decision whether or not to separate them, than by the conflict over this decision and the reasons why both parties are being so inflexible. It may be that parents want their multiples to be seen as the center of attention and do not want them separated just for this reason. It may be that the principal/head teacher is determined about always separating twins, irrespective of the wishes of the family.

Whenever a debate about separation occurs, and both sides seem to get more and more entrenched in their views, someone else can give a new perspective. For example, if the concern is about classroom behavior or some academic skill, it may be possible to involve some outside specialist teacher or psychologist. Perhaps the problem is not as serious as everyone has been saying or perhaps there is some intervention strategy which could provide an alternative solution to the issue. However, if no resolution is possible, then something must be done for the sake of the children. It may mean capitulation by one or both parties:

“Yes, they can be separated but will be put back together if there is any clear indication of problems.”


“they can stay in the same class, but they will be on opposite sides of the room where they have the comfort of knowing the other twin is still there but without the disruptive contact. If they are disruptive, then separation is the only option left”.

If tension does continue and is not resolved, the ultimate solution is to move schools. Each year a few parents of multiples take this drastic and disruptive step as the only way to deal with what may be developing into a very stressful situation for the children, who can sense the friction between the adults. However, with competition for school places, moving school may not be an option. Therefore, early discussion and resolution are essential so that parents and teachers can work together for the benefit of the children.

Click here to download the questionnaire (Microsoft Word format)

Click here to download the questionnaire (PDF format)




References: See here

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