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Is my child ready for school?

At present in preschool and kinder car parks around the country, mums, dads and carers are discussing whether they’ll send their kids to school early, on time, or hold them back.

Parents whose child, due to birth date, falls into that uncertain area are often in a quandary as to which year to send them to school. This can be one of the most difficult decisions to make and plays on the minds of parents. In our clinic we face this question regularly, as parents try to determine the best way forward.

Do you start your child at four and a half years or do you wait until they’re going on six? Will they be bored with another year shared between home and preschool/kinder or will they struggle if sent to school too early? Are they emotionally mature enough? Will they be able to keep up academically?

Kathy Walker, Melbourne education consultant and early childhood expert at Early Life Foundations has spent so much time talking about school readiness with parents that she’s written a book about it called, Ready Set Go.

“When to start your child at school is a major decision for parents,” she says. “And understandably because parents, and the school, want their children to thrive and to flourish and not struggle to keep up and on top of things.

“What I tell parents is that there’s no need to rush – children are going to be at school for a long time, so let’s ensure they are great years.”

To take the pressure off parents she is calling on the Federal Government to introduce a national starting age – and she is pushing for it to be at the older end of the scale rather than the younger.

“Australia has one of the youngest starting ages in the world, yet there is no evidence or data to suggest that starting school early is better,” she says.

School readiness: How can a parent know?
Kathy says parents can’t be expected to make a completely independent decision on whether their child is ready to start the school journey.

“The best person to assess school readiness is the child’s preschool teacher,” she says. “And it’s important parents listen to the advice given because this person has been trained in early childhood development.”

She stresses that school readiness is not about being able to read or write, know colours or count.

These skills will be taught at school so they are not a priority for starting school. To enter school ready to thrive, flourish and enjoy the challenges – rather than merely just coping – we are taking the issue of school readiness more seriously and carefully.

“Readiness is really mostly about emotional and social maturity – aspects of development that we cannot fast-track. We cannot make a child who lacks the necessary maturity become mature.”

Expert checklist to assess school readiness
The key areas of maturity and development are the social and emotional areas, says Kathy.

While she is reluctant to have parents tick off a checklist, here are some of the questions she asks when assessing school readiness:

    • Can they make an independent decision and follow through on this?
    • Do they have ideas of their own?
    • Can they follow two instructions at the same time?
    • Can they move on to new activities easily?
    • Do they separate well from their carer?
    • Do they show interest in other kids?
    • Do they interact with other children?
    • Can they recognise and express their feelings and needs?
    • Can they concentrate on a task?
    • How do they deal with frustration?

Does it matter if kids repeat their first year?
There is a feeling that repeating their first year at school is no big deal.

Kathy Walker disagrees.

“Why would you start your child at school knowing that there is a good chance they will need to repeat that year?” she asks.

“Once you are on the conveyer belt of the school system, it becomes much harder for everyone to make the decision for the child to repeat.

“Don’t send a child to school already thinking they can repeat if they have to. You want the first year of school to be exciting and successful, not just one where the child attempts to ‘cope’ and then has to do it all again.”

How can parents help with school readiness?
There are many activities that parents undertake with young children that have a positive effect on their development and promote school readiness. These include:

    • reading with your child
    • teaching them songs and nursery rhymes
    • playing with letters and numbers
    • taking children on excursions
    • creating regular opportunities for them to play with their friends and other children.

Over many years of experience in both Speech Pathology and Education, we often meet with parents in reporting back results of assessments, only to hear them regretting their decision of having ignored the advice of the preschool/kinder teacher in starting their child. It is at this point too late- a waste of energy and cause of ongoing stress.

It is imperative to look at your child as they are, not in regards their date of birth; whether they can read, write or count; or what family and friends think. Be conscious that there can be a difference of up to 18 months between the youngest and oldest in the Prep class. Speech errors are not a reason for holding back your child from starting school, however, a history of language delay immediately compromises your child’s readiness to commence school. Additionally, as Kathy Walker indicates, look at their maturity and development in social interactions and emotional response. These factors can assist in your decision.