The real truth about transitioning into pre-primary in Western Australia

“Children who are pushed too much, too soon, have a much higher chance of struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, poor health and poor relationships throughout their lives because they become wired to be hypersensitive to stress.”
– Maggie Dent, Mothering Our Boys (2018).


In Western Australia (WA), some children transitioning into pre-primary who have developmental vulnerabilities, or who are emotionally and socially immature, are being forced to start against the wishes of their parents and against the recommendations of allied health professionals, even paediatricians.

This is the real truth and it only happens in WA.

I want to begin by stating that I am a proudly government-educated author and parent educator who taught in the government system for many years. I have a deep respect for all the hard-working teachers, staff and school leaders who work in government schools across WA. My only issue is with those who are making decisions that are denying vulnerable children the opportunity to have more time before they begin pre-primary in a government school.

I have been advocating against the forced starting of children for many years now. In November, I began a campaign with a petition targeting the Premier of WA, Mark McGowan. I wanted him to hear the concerns of families, allied health professionals and early childhood educators. In December, I had a conversation with the Premier and he said he was unaware that this was happening in his state. Sadly, he did not deem this important enough to make a clear captain’s call that it needed to stop in his state.

At this point, when parents emailed the Premier or the Minister of Education Susan Ellery, they received a standardised response that said that flexibility was possible and that it was the responsibility of the primary principal. It said:

The School Education Act 1999 prescribes the age period for pre-compulsory and compulsory education in Western Australia. Since 1 January 2013, the year in which a student reaches the age of five years and six months is their Pre-primary year, the first year of compulsory education. Parents need to either enrol their child at a school or register as home educators when their child is of compulsory school age. The Department of Education’s Enrolment in Public Schools policy requires principals to determine the year-level placement of a child in collaboration with the child’s parents and reflecting the emphasis on age-appropriate placements. While a child’s entry into compulsory education cannot be delayed in Western Australia, parents can meet with the principal to discuss the most suitable placement for their child.

Sadly, for years I have been hearing from parents who are seeking suitability, that this is not happening and it is causing a small and yet number of families distress.

Deputy Director-General Stephen Baxter has made a statement saying that a principal’s decision can be reviewed by the district education office, or the WA Education Department.

This is one parent’s response to following the review process. Her son has completed a year of kindergarten and she is requesting that he have one more year in kindergarten before he moves into pre-primary:

After I spoke to the principal of the school, I rang the education department. I spoke to a lady who did not listen at all. She went on and on about studies, this and that research shows that it [repeating a year] doesn’t help the kids. Just went on about all the studies. I said ‘so parents don’t have a clue about their children?’. She said no the school knows better than parents. So with that very rude comment, I started to think about it all. I took my son to our GP and he referred us to a paediatrician the very next day as he was concerned. A paediatrician had a very close look at my son’s reports, school work, his tests. Asked so many questions about his past. Our son was diagnosed with selective mutism. The doctors couldn’t believe that he had started school at 3 years and 8 months old and had done a full year already at Kindergarten. He also wanted our son to repeat Kindergarten this year. Which is where we are [at].

Many times, I have heard principals, deputy principals and the occasional member of the Education Department declare emphatically that the research shows that repeating is detrimental and seldom achieves the desired outcome. From my reading of the research this applies to primary school rather than before starting formal schooling.

In one study published in 2019 on school starting age and child development in NSW, the benefits of delaying the start of formal schooling were clear (I might add that parents’ wishes are respected without question in New South Wales).

The highlights of the study were:

  • One in four children delay school entry in NSW.
  • Children who are more likely to have delayed entry include boys, younger children and advantaged children.
  • In disadvantaged urban areas, there’s a tendency to start school when first eligible.
  • Children who are older when they start are more likely to be ready for the first year of school.

The study found a strong and significant relationship between school starting age and early childhood development. It found that for every month of maturity a child had, they were 3% more probably of scoring above the 25th percentile across all five AEDC domains. Regardless of what age they started school, kids who were among the older cohort in their classrooms had better developmental outcomes.

Importantly, the researchers recommended that further longitudinal research was warranted, into the potential for initial age-related differences to impact later school outcomes.

Children’s capacity differs

Child development cannot be forced, however it can be nurtured. The capacity for children to navigate the full-time rigours of compulsory pre-primary differs for every child. When a child struggles whether due to immaturity, physical vulnerabilities or developmental challenges or delays, they will experience stress. Australia has a documented increase in children’s anxiety and I am highly suspicious of the push-down of formalised learning for 4- and 5-year-olds as a key contributor to this. Recognising that some children need extra time to grow and mature is not just common sense, it is developmentally appropriate and totally acceptable.

An experienced primary principal emailed me explaining that children close to the cut-off date, were often given more time to mature:

From my knowledge and experience it has always been possible for parents, who have children born in the six weeks prior to the cut-off date, now June 30, previously December 31 to not start their child till the following year. In fact, often I’ve recommended that. Usually to no avail, as the parents want their child to start with their playgroup, child care, etc. friends.  Even though, in many instances, they clearly are not ready. (As usual there is always two sides to the story).

Many children who have speech delays need targeted support to be able to improve and that will not be possible in a classroom setting with usually more than 20 students. These children have been shown, anecdotally, to continue to struggle and often their literacy remains problematic right through their schooling experience.

In a 2016 study by Lee and Pring, the authors indicated that there was extensive evidence that children who many children who are socio-economically disadvantaged in their early years have delayed language development. Further, those delays continue when the child starts school and tend to persist throughout their education.

Misbehaviour is stress behaviour

Neuroscience shows very clearly that stressed brains do not learn well and for young children this stress is often displayed through behaviour that is inappropriate, and for many children frustratingly aggressive. Constant failure, whether that be an inability to draw or colour in, an inability to sit on the mat for very long, or any inability to manage their emotional and social worlds, creates enormous stress for children.

Dr Mona Delahooke in her groundbreaking book, Beyond Behaviours: Using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioural challenges, argues strongly that rather than seeing children as bad or naughty and asking how do we get rid of difficult behaviour, we need to ask the question “what is this telling us about the child?”

She writes:

“Many of our approaches falsely assume that children can self-regulate their emotions and behaviours when in reality they do not have that ability.” – Mona Delahooke

Dr Delahooke explores the influence of neurodiversity and autism as well as the impact of toxic stress and trauma and how it impacts children’s capacity to learn and behave. How sad is it that being forced into an environment where you lack the developmental capacity to manage or cope, is seen as acceptable in any way, shape or form?

This message came from a passionate, dedicated teacher, and it also shines a light on why some of our children need more time to develop their emotional and social confidences before they begin big school.

Let’s talk suspensions. This year in our PP cohort of around 90, we had 8 suspensions, and some of those 8 children multiple times each. This does not include the many other suspensions these children were facing that we were able to negotiate with admin to not have them suspended for.

The behaviours that they were suspended for had to be followed through on because they incurred serious violence/harm to other children and adults, and or school property.We had to evacuate our classrooms every week either inside during outside play time, or outside during instruction time, due to danger to other children. These children all 5 and 6 years of age over the course of the year, all beautiful children, all suspended because they could not cope with big emotions and a failed system. We advocate for and love these children, but in the same breath we then have other children who have not only normalised this daily disruptive behaviour in their lives, but may also be now anxious coming to school. Whilst we are fighting to assist these children and meet their basic needs, other children are faced with potential ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] causing a trauma around coming to school.

I am concerned that this is also happening in kindergarten classes as well as pre-primary and Year 1 settings because these children are obviously highly distressed and struggling. Their inappropriate and sometimes dangerous behaviour will impact the learning outcomes of the other children.

We must recognise that some children may need two years of kindergarten (in WA), and then they could transition into pre-primary.

Some children need more time

Sadly, many parents are told, because kindergarten is not compulsory, that if they keep their child home for that year they will not be able to start with kindergarten the following year, when their child is five – they must go straight into preprimary. Of course, they can do kindergarten as a five-year-old and that flexibility is in the hands of the primary principal.

Research shows sending children to school too soon can be damaging (particularly when we know that the early childhood education model of delivery is far too formal in many WA pre-primary settings).

I contacted Dr Sandra Hestermann who is Director of Early Childhood Education at Murdoch University to ask her to update me about the latest research on the impacts of sending children to school earlier than they might be ready for – or on the benefits of delaying school starting age.

Dr Hestermann pointed to research that said:

  1. Of social-emotional skills:
    Social-emotional skills are predictive of educational success, even after taking into account measures of academic achievement (Almlund et al. 2011; Heckman et al. 2014; Denham and Bassett 2018).

If children are socially competent, they are more likely to be able to manage conflicts peacefully, get along with others, engage in the classroom, and have a more positive relationship with their teacher (Nix et al. 2016).

 Children who are not as social emotionally developed tend to be less attentive in class and have poorer interactions with peers. Social-emotional skills may improve children’s readiness for school because they are more compliant to the demands of what they are learning and are able to spend more time on a task (Nix et al. 2016).

Overall, health, happiness, and strong social emotional skills promote positive experiences in school and good relationships with teachers and peers.

– Reference: Comparing Parents’ and Teachers’ Rank-Ordered Importance of Early School Readiness Characteristics Michele M. Miller1   LeAnna M. Kehl2 Published online: 27 March 2019.

  1. Delaying kindergarten has been linked to children having significant reductions in inattention and hyperactivity, a measure of self-regulation, by the time they are 11 years old, according to research from Stanford University.

The unrealistic pressure to make our kids smart before we ensure they are able to manage their physiological needs, especially toileting and sleep, to get on with others, communicate and be understood, have hours of joy and delight as kids, learn to cope with disappointment and setbacks — and enjoy the freedom of being a magical child under seven — is making our children sadder, sicker, fatter and more disconnected than any other generation of children.

Professor Margot Sunderland in her book, The Science of Parenting, writes that the stress-­regulating systems of children that are set up in the first five years become the stress -regulating systems of us as adults. So, children who are pushed too much, too soon, have a much higher chance of struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions, poor health and poor relationships throughout their lives because they become wired to be hypersensitive to stress.

Boys starting behind

Statistically there is clear evidence according to the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) and the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) that gender is definitely a factor when transitioning to big school and our boys do struggle at a higher rate than our girls.

As I wrote in my book, Mothering Our Boys:

Given that our boys tend to be developmentally behind our girls, we need to invest more heavily into nurturing and caring for our little boys instead of pushing and forcing them into environments that create more stress and anxiety.

Speech pathologist Amanda Styles wrote to me with her concerns for the children she has predominantly worked with over 20 years who have ‘developmental difficulties, ranging from speech and language difficulties, learning disorders, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders and emotional and behavioural problems’:

“Now, with the push for early formalised learning, these children are even more at risk for developing behavioural, learning, social and emotional difficulties. They will lag ever further behind their peers and, as we are already seeing, there will be significant increases in concurrent problems (e.g. behavioural issues within the classrooms). Instead of having the much needed time to further develop their oral language development, self-regulatory skills and social emotional maturity through the much needed play experiences that pre schooling has previously provided, their attention is pushed towards formal literacy and numeracy training. They do not have the verbal and social prerequisites to cope with this level of teaching. It is like asking a child with a physical disability to run a race they are not yet physically able to run. They cannot run that race. Similarly, these children with developmental difficulties are cognitively not ready to cope with the demands of formal learning.” — Amanda Styles, speech pathologist (personal correspondence)

Men who have struggled in the early years due to boys’ common developmental delay or because of harsh punishment, often lack motivation, healthy ambition, resilience and the capacity to form meaningful relationships. Indeed, the mindsets that boys create in the transition to school often come back into play in the transition to high school and then the transition to life at the other end. We must ensure that little boys can find some form of success while they are in our school environments because without this sense of capability they will struggle, and that struggle often transforms into aggression,
driven by anger.

– Maggie Dent, Mothering Our Boys (2018)

This is a message from one parent about her son…

X was born on 27/06/2017. If he had been born three days later he would be included in the 2022 intake for school. Because of how close to the cut off he is born it means that instead he will be included in the 2021 intake for school and he will be the youngest in the class by many months — up to 12 months in some instances and he will start kindy when he is only 3.5 years old. I believe that for some children they may be ready at this age – but for my son he is simply not ready! He experiences quite severe speech difficulties and I believe that this will put him at a huge disadvantage in commencing his schooling and will negatively impact his confidence and enjoyment of school for the years to come (he often struggles to be understood by his peers and by other adults) and also just in general his readiness to contribute and thrive (not just survive) in a class setting.

And another message from a different parent of a son…

I would like my son to be able to have this year 2021 at home and be able to continue to work with a speech pathologist and also just develop at his own pace so that I can be able to enrol him next year for kindy in 2022. He is so little. He can’t even keep his shoes on for any extended period of time. He loves to be barefoot and outdoors and I believe that starting kindy at 4.5 instead of 3.5 would absolutely make a world of difference for him and that this would give him the time and space needed to prepare fully and to be able to build a foundation of all the skills he needs to be able to embrace and be ready for his many years of formal education. I am asking for compassion for his situation especially when the age cut off is so very very close (in this instance a matter of several days where he could be in the 2022 intake with no questions asked) and there are genuine concerns for his readiness in other areas. I believe that as his parent I should be able to be involved in this process and have my concerns heard and honoured. I believe allowing him this year to further prepare will also benefit all of the teachers and students that will be involved in his teaching and classroom experiences in the years to come.

And another message from a parent of a boy…

I have expressed my concern to the school via email to the deputy and then a phone call to the principal and I was told that kindy is not compulsory and that my son would be able to skip the 2021 year of kindy but he would then need to start full-time the next year straight into pre primary. I believe this will put him at an even further disadvantage having missed out on the kindy year and being able to adjust on a part time level to the routine and requirements of school.

And yet another message from a concerned parent of a son…

My son has severe speech delay. He started kindy in 2019 at 3 years 9 months old. End of April baby, so one of the youngest in the class. He attends speech therapy and has made great gains with his speech. But he is a year if not more behind his peers in expressive language. We are now in the position that he will be starting Year 1 in Feb, this is a key year for the foundation of literacy , unfortunately with his speech issues reading is extremely difficult for him. It is going to be a tough year and he will always be behind going through school. I have asked the school to let him repeat, but [they] are insisting that it isn’t an option. If from day one, he was allowed to wait an extra year before starting school — starting school at 4 years and 9 months, making him just 2 months older than the older of the children starting that year — he would have had a year to focus on his speech and catch up. But due to the “rule”, he had to start school. It makes me very angry that there are many children that fall into this category, and are literally been set up to fail from the outset. My son works so hard at his speech and it breaks my heart to see him struggle trying to read words , when he is unable to actually make that sound. His spelling is also hindered as he can’t actually say the word to sound out the letters in it.

For parents of boys, I would encourage you to read my blogs on preparing your little boys for school and also on assessing if he may need more time (if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where flexibility is allowed).

The Department needs to walk its talk

Our education system has a responsibility to make decisions that are respectful and well-informed and in the best interests of the students in their care. In WA, the Education Department has openly aligned its early childhood education program to the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF).

Belonging, Being and Becoming – The Early Years Learning Framework describes the principles, practices and outcomes that support and enhance young children’s learning from birth to five years of age, as well as their transition to school.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) developed this framework to assist educators (and that includes parents and families) to provide young children with opportunities to maximise their potential and develop a foundation for future success. It clearly states the COAG vision that:

“All children have the best start in life to create a better future for themselves.”

The framework “draws on conclusive international evidence that early childhood is a vital period of children’s learning and development”. Early childhood educators and even more importantly academics are fully aware that age is not a true indicator of a child’s readiness for transition into full-time pre-primary. They are also fully aware that development cannot be hurried or forced and yet for a small number of our children, this is what has been happening, and is still happening and must stop.

The EYLF forms the foundation for ensuring that children in all early childhood education and care settings experience quality teaching and learning. It has a specific emphasis on play-based learning and recognises the importance of communication and language (including early literacy and numeracy), and social and emotional development. The framework has been designed for use by early childhood educators and teachers working in partnership with families, which are children’s first and most influential educators. It is built on the principles laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention). It seems that primary principals and other school leaders may be unaware of the framework and its importance.

“The Convention states that all children have the right to an education that lays a foundation for the rest of their lives, that maximises their ability, respects their family, cultural and other identities and language.”

Quite obviously the WA early childhood sector of the Education Department is not taking this seriously. Parents are being ignored and children’s best interests are being ignored and they are certainly not receiving opportunities to maximise their potential. Again, the EYLF mandate clearly states that the government and all its representatives should be working in partnership with families when making decisions about children’s well-being.

This message from a concerned mother shows that the Convention and the EYLF are being ignored within the department:

I have also called the Department of Education and they explained that no exceptions can be made and that he would be fine to start and that it is often us as parents that limit what our children are capable of (this woman on the phone having never met my child or knowing nothing of me or my parenting).

This is another example of a blatant disregard for the process of working with parents and families to provide young children with opportunities to maximise their potential and develop a foundation for future success, which underpins early childhood philosophy.

Our son is born in June so was the youngest in his class by three months when he started kindy at age 3.5. He was not fully toilet trained, often had a day sleep, we had a new baby at home – it was just hard. The whole year was a nightmare, he just wanted to stay home and play. At the end of term 1 we approached his teacher and said we think it isn’t working for him, he was happier doing daycare, can we just pull him out now and send him back to daycare for a couple of days a week, and start kindy the following year? She flatly told us no, he was in the system now and [the] only option was to let him fail badly, then they would offer support via a counsellor or something and would most likely push him through to Pre-Primary anyway.

One experienced primary principal who contacted me explained that there were times she allowed flexible attendance for children whose parents were concerned about the maturity because they were late-in-the-year children.

If the parents decide to have the child commence K then, often at the end of the K year they wish to repeat their child I usually encourage them to send them to P, with flexible attendance, as they then have five days a week in a play-based program and I always say, at the end of the P year if they are not ready for the formal year 1 year they do P again. This has worked.

I have questioned the availability of flexibility for children in this situation on a number of occasions and teachers have told me that those children will miss too much of the curriculum especially in the primary schools that have pushed down formalised learning. If the child was in a pre-primary environment or in a community kindergarten or in one of the alternative schools like Steiner or Montessori that included lots of autonomous freedom in nature, with unstructured play opportunities and lots of flexibility for when they are too tired or exhausted, this could be a consideration. However, it seems extremely unlikely in a hurry up environment of pre-primary in Western Australia in particular.

Another concerning message I’m hearing from parents is about children who were born as premature babies. Some of these children have developmental delays and vulnerabilities due to their early birth and yet these little ones were also being subjected to being forced into pre-primary against the parents’ wishes.

A message from a parent of a premature child.

The Information given to me by the Education Department that repeating a year has no benefit to premature and delayed development students cannot be verified.  Evidence points in the opposite direction: ‘Children born as little as three weeks premature, who consequently fall into an earlier school year are more likely to experience significant setbacks in their education after their first year of school, according to new research…’ – Source: “Early education setback for summer premature births” Science News, August 13 2019.

The number of 4-6-year-olds who are being suspended and expelled across Australia is alarmingly high and continues to grow each year. Statistically some of these are boys who are struggling in an environment that they are developmentally unable to cope with. Also, there are many in this age group who are struggling with other challenges as I have already explored. Early childhood educators can only do so much to help all the children in their settings to cope and even better still, to thrive. Sadly, I have heard from many early childhood educators who have felt very strongly about a child needing more time to not only be ignored but to be silenced! How can that fit in with the Convention guidelines of the EYLF?

This shift to more formal learning that fails to allow the first year of school – during which many children are still four for several months – to be a time during which teachers can help strengthen all areas of children’s growth so they are better able to meet the demands of the more formal learning that has traditionally happened in the year they turn six is definitely a factor in this issue.

Can I emphasise too that I am not a lone voice here … we have a petition that has over 15,000 signatures and the support of the Community Kindergartens Association of WA, The State School Teachers’ Union of WA, Early Childhood Australia WA, the Thrive By Five initiative, Valuing Children Initiative, Australian Childcare Alliance and Commissioner for Children and Young People WA Colin Pettit.

What needs to happen in WA to prevent any more harm for vulnerable children?

Starting school before a child is ready can create stress and anxiety patterns that can also last for life.  More importantly, there are some things that children simply cannot learn until they are ready. The number of children who need more time before they begin pre-primary is small. Most children transition with few challenges.

However, the ‘gaps’ in the system in WA that still see vulnerable children forced must be closed.

Given the gaps or loopholes I have identified within the public education system that are blocking or preventing the due process for parents to give their children more time to transition to big school…

This is, I believe, what we need to see:

A clear public statement from either the Premier Mark McGowan or the Director General of Education Lisa Rodgers to state unequivocally and totally transparently that no child in WA will be forced to begin pre-primary against their parents’ wishes. It needs to be made clear that if a child is not mature enough for kindergarten as a 4-year-old, that they may complete kindergarten as a 5-year-old and then transition into pre-primary as a 6-year-old. This will ensure that extra time can be used to help build confidence and capacity in the areas of their vulnerability.

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