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If your child was born around the end of the year, give yourself a big pat on the back. You’re one of the lucky parents. You’ll simply wait until their fifth birthday and send them to school in the new year.
But for many parents who have kids born on the age cusp it is a tricky decision to know if their child is ready to head off to school.
The legal age to start school
Globally, school age varies quite considerably. While kids can start school as young as four in Britain, the age is six in Germany and seven in Sweden, Norway and Finland.
In New Zealand, kids traditionally start school on their fifth birthday however, since 2018 schools have been allowed to insist that their new recruits start with their same-age cohort – either the first day of term or the middle of term after their birthday.
In Australia, all children are deemed ‘ready to learn’ at the age of five and, by law must be in school by age six.
But starting ages do vary in some states. In New South Wales, for example, kids can start kindergarten at the beginning of the school year if they turn five on or before 31st July in that year.
However, with the increasing pressure of women returning to work and the ‘race to literacy’ (wanting your child to excel), many parents are sending their kids as early as possible. But is this the best thing for your child? A growing number of experts seem to think not.
“The later the better,” says NSW-based child psychologist Vera Auerbach. “All the research from Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavian countries, shows better results with starting kids later.”
Author of Help Your Child Succeed at School and clinical psychologist/family therapist Andrew Fuller agrees. “The research is very clear,” he says. “Children who start school at a later age do better academically, and that persists right through to year 12.”
And while you might think that sending your kids earlier gives them the educational advantage, Andrew begs to differ. “There is no research that children who develop earlier do better in the longer term. People learn at different stages and in different ways.”
The most important thing is maturation. “If you are in the older end of your age group, then you are basically more together maturationally, and that advantage just accumulates as you go through the years.”
Your child must be legally enrolled in school by the age of six.
Getting it right
Deciding when to start your child at school can be a major pain point for parents and is always a hot topic in mothers’ groups. “Are you holding your child back?” echoes around play groups and cafes for parents of three-year-olds, as the decision starts to loom large.
Everyone is different and it’s vital you give the issue considerable thought for the sake of your child, says Andrew.
“If they go to school at a stage when they’re unhappy, stressed and feeling unable to cope with the separation, if they don’t have skills like sitting down and being quiet for reasonably long periods, then they might be labelled as having a behaviour problem. They’ll get negative feedback and see themselves as a failure,” he says. “But if they’re happy and ready to be there, then they’ll have success and that success builds upon itself.”
And while the general consensus is that girls tend to be ready earlier than boys, it’s not always the case.
“There are certainly some indications that girls who have, say, anger and emotional problems at early preschool age actually do worse long-term than boys. So they can be quite vulnerable,” says Andrew.
Instead, he believes all children can benefit from an extra year at home. “There’s a lot of emphasis on getting your kids to have the advantage but we’ve forgotten the great advantage that’s given to kids by just hanging out with their parents. Play is incredibly integrative for their understanding of the world,” he says.
“The research says you’d be far better off spending that year trying to help them engage in a whole series of social activities and imaginative play.”
And don’t worry if you do feel you’ve sent them too early, you can always pull them out and wait a year. “While the tough nuts would say, ‘Oh just hammer them through,’ I think that if your child is expressing distress over and over again, they’re not going to be gaining much out of school anyway,” says Andrew.
“I would wait a bit longer and go for a fresh start the following year.”
WATCH: Mum’s life organising app for back-to-school. Continues after video …
How to know if your child is ‘school ready’
How does your child interact with others? Are they generally positive, assertive, able to cope with rebuffs and also empathise with others? Can they approach others successfully, take turns, compromise and calm themselves down after an upset or tantrum? These are all skills they will require at school.
Physical health and motor coordination:
Most teachers believe that “Probably one of the biggest predictors for successful integration into school is emotional,” agrees Andrew. “How well does your child tolerate separation from you? Kids can be clingy for all sorts of reasons but if you leave them with a friend and they get very upset, then it’s not going to be the time (for school).”
Is your child intellectually inquisitive? Are they keen to learn about life, the alphabet, numbers and so forth?
Can your child speak clearly enough to be understood by others? Can they convey two or more ideas in one sentence? If they can communicate effectively with adults and peers they’ll cope better.
Parents, on the other hand, cite ‘adjustment’ as a crucial criteria. They need to be able to settle, sit still, follow instructions, ask for help and focus calmly. They also need to be able to wave goodbye happily at the gate. The more enthusiasm they have for this the more school-ready they are.
Can your child hold a pencil or a piece of chalk? Can they use scissors correctly and bounce a ball? These are all small things that can indicate school readiness.
General knowledge and skills:
Many teachers see skills such as toileting, tying shoelaces and managing their own lunch as more important than whether kids can write their name or count to 20. They should also understand the concept of time and be aware of the different body parts.
Children need to be aware of rules and be able to follow them. They should know – or be able to learn – to sit up straight, wear a hat outdoors, put rubbish in the bin and so on.
Obviously, children with developmental delays or special needs such as autism may struggle in some of these areas, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to start kindergarten if the right support systems are put into place at the school.
For parents with children born in the beginning part of the year it can be tricky to know if it’s best to send or not send.
To send or not to send
Still unsure? Here are some things you can do to help make the decision a little easier:
Get good advice:
Each child is different so don’t ask other parents. Instead, talk to their preschool teacher or childcare worker, or make an appointment with their future school for an assessment. You can also seek professional counselling through the Australian Psychological Society.
Visit the school first:
Many schools run orientation programs before the school year and this will give you and your child some idea of what’s required and whether they’re up to it. You’ll see how lessons are conducted, where they’ll eat lunch, how the toilets are set up, how noisy it is and so on.
Do some rehearsals:
Drop your child off with friends and see how they go on their own. If they get upset when you leave and fail to calm down, or don’t interact successfully with the other children, you might want to delay school.
Book them into child care a few days a week:
If your child isn’t already enrolled, it’s worth using child care in the run up to starting school. Local government preschools are subsidised and focus on school readiness for four-year-olds.
Studies show that kids are more socially competent with peers if they’ve been to daycare or preschool.
Trust your instincts:
No-one knows your child like you. “Parents receive advice from people with different vested interests,” says Andrew. “But the parent knows their child better than anybody else.”