Many families will by now have made the difficult decision about whether or not to start their child at school next year.
As a mother of four boys this was a particularly challenging decision for me, especially as research has suggested that boys are less likely to be ready for school than girls.
One study found that boys expressed themselves less clearly than girls and have more difficulty writing their names, recognising numbers and letters, and tying their shoelaces.
My eldest couldn’t write his name when he started school, yet he now has two degrees and a successful legal career. Einstein, too, was a delayed developer who didn’t speak until he was 5 and he did alright for himself later in life.
Research has also shown that, of the children still struggling at the end of the second year of school, most were boys. That’s why it’s not uncommon for educators to recommend delayed entry for immature boys.
However, the landscape for early learning is changing in Australia and it may have disastrous effects for all children with delayed readiness, particularly boys, Indigenous children and children whose second language is English.
The national curriculum
One of the flagships of Australia’s “education revolution”, the national curriculum has proposed to bring more formalised learning to children the year they turn five hoping all children will be writing sentences, doing phonetics and more early grammar in their first year of school.
Educationally, this is a ridiculous decision as formalised learning delivered too early can turn children off learning, especially reading, for life. It is also completely at odds with another excellent government initiative, the Early Years Learning Framework, which advocates a completely play-based learning until age five.
This shift to more formal learning 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.
While many children with delayed readiness may go on to succeed, the journey for them can be so much more challenging.
The impact of not being ready
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.
For example, handwriting legibly needs a quite complex brain integration to occur and no matter how much we want our children to do it, it’s simply impossible for them to do it until they are ready.
Reading relies on the development of a lobe in the brain that kicks in sometime between age three and 14 an enormous window.
Our fast-paced lifestyle is very much about hurrying up but development is one of those things that cannot be hurried. Children have to grow up at their own pace and our education system needs to allow for that. The new curriculum does quite the opposite.
There are no easy answers for this: western countries have little agreement on school starting ages, with some commencing at four while others wait until children are seven.
Parents can help their children be better prepared for school by strengthening the many life skills that build social and emotional competence before they start school through encouraging play in all its forms in as many different contexts as possible.
Children who start school with known friends are at an advantage too as friendships smooth many of the early fears of starting in a new environment.
Early years educators can also help with decision-making. These are the guidelines they use in determining readiness:
- Physical Health and Wellbeing especially fine motor skills good health, well fed, well rested, sitting, listening skills, able to grip a pencil, turn pages in a book, build with blocks, able to toilet themselves, feed themselves, dress themselves, some degree of focus to task, blow nose, wipe bottom, wash hands
- Social Competence primary need is to be able to get along with other children, cope with stress of new situation and new learning tasks, have healthy assertiveness, ability to play solo and with other children, have pro-social behaviour
- Emotional Maturity some ability to self manage their emotions, be able to cope with minimal adult contact in large groups, develop friendships, able to separate from parents
- Language and Cognitive Skills basic counting, follow basic instructions, basic thinking skills
- Communication Skills and General Knowledge basic conversation skills, manners, ability to communicate needs, understanding of wider world
- Independence for children with special needs, can they have additional support?
Maybe the question should be, “Is the school ready for your child?” rather than, “Is your child ready for school?”
There is a big difference in school cultures and with a positive, caring school culture children’s transitions can make a huge difference in helping children to begin school. Some children with delayed readiness can blossom with an enthusiastic caring early year’s educator. Indeed the most significant other factor is the classroom teacher and their competence, enthusiasm and capacity to care for all the children in a safe environment. Happy, calm children always learn best regardless of readiness.
“Although many teachers in all sections of early childhood education are conscious of the need for preschool/school liaison, such liaisons frequently depend on the personal qualities and enthusiasm of individual teachers.” – Renwick, M. (1984). To school at five: The transition from home or pre school to school. Wellington: NZCER.
Overcoming financial challenges
Delaying school start time is sometimes not financially possible for many families. This creates an additional challenge for some schools who have such children with significant delays. It is helpful if the stigma for doing two preparatory years could disappear and – especially for boys – let it be OK that they spend an extra year playing in the sandpit!
Final tips for parents:
- Build a willingness for life and openness for life-long learning from birth.
- The more play outside with other children – and the more family experiences that build human interaction the better.
- There is no hurry.
- Build physical and social skills strongly – this helps children feel confident and allows the teacher to do her job!
- Talk with your early years’ educator.
- Many delayed starters become very clever-children are ready to transition to school at different times.
- Trust your own instincts – you know your child best.