Deciding whether or not to send your four-year-old to school? Consider this first

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

This is the time of year parents are making their final decisions about whether or not their four-year-olds are ready to transition into the first year of school in 2019.

It is a tough decision to make for some as, over time, the curriculum and expectations of what happens in the first year of schooling has changed dramatically. Essentially, children starting school now do work that 25 years ago was done in their second year of schooling – Year 1.

With boys' development being slower than girls before birth and in these early years, I meet many a mum who's concerned because her three-and a-half-year-old daughter is running rings around her 5-year-old son. This same boy by around eight tends to catch up if he is not forced to do things that he's developmentally unable to do, nor has he had repeated struggling experiences.

Repeated failure creates mindsets like, "I am dumb. I am stupid". Psychologist and researcher Professor Carol Dweck researched mindsets with 4-year-olds and found that a significant number of them had already decided that they were smart or dumb, or good or bad!

So, for a little boy who is unable to move his body as freely as he needs to and is developmentally not ready to perform some of the tasks that are being asked of him, he runs the risk of creating one of these negative mindsets.

Not only that, but day after day his self-worth barometer is emptied. Repeated failure will trigger any little boy to display distress in the only language he knows – through his behaviour.

I seriously think this is one of the main reasons why Australia has such a high rate of 4- to 6-year-olds — mainly boys — being suspended and expelled from school.

These mindsets are very difficult to change once they are entrenched, and they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is where my concern about the push down of formalised learning into the early years starts.

Is school ready for your lad?

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I strongly advocate that you seriously consider delaying the start of formal schooling an extra year if you have the slightest concern about your son's readiness.

Often, boys can be cognitively ready and yet socially immature, or the reverse.   Many boys can struggle deeply with separation distress without being able to articulate this pain, and then exhibit signs of anxiety that can manifest as aggression, silliness or sobbing.

I have never met a parent who regrets giving this extra time to shine, however I have met so many who wish they had.

The ridiculous pressure to make our kids smart before we ensure they are able 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 before them.

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 will become their stress­-regulating systems as adults. Every week in the media we are hearing of young people struggling with mental illness and stress-related illnesses.

Indeed, our emergency departments are struggling to cope and our mental health services are at bursting point. Wouldn't it be wiser to prevent the pressures that we put on our young children rather than try and fix the damage it causes later in adolescence and adulthood? There is no evidence that says learning to read at five has any benefits over learning to read at seven and yet we seem to be hell-bent, particularly in Australia, to make this the new reality.

There are so many skills, behaviours and capabilities that our young children need to be competent in, other than just their capacity to count to 100 and know their alphabet. I have serious concerns about how our digital children will navigate their world socially and emotionally as these human competences are only formed through spending hours interacting through play with other children in the present moment.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) has shown that many boys do have a tendency to struggle a little more in the early years. Some studies have shown that boys express themselves less clearly than girls, have more difficulty writing their names, recognising numbers and letters, and tying their shoelaces.

If it is possible financially and otherwise, please seriously consider allowing your child the extra time they may need to grow, to mature and to bloom. Every state has flexibility around when your child can start full-time, 5-year-old formalised schooling. Rather than see it is delaying, see it as allowing. Remember, too, that you know your child best.

There are five areas of children's development that need to be considered when making this decision, but it also requires us to reflect on transitions and also a school's readiness.

Further, there has been a lot of research around self-regulation and boys who are developmentally behind others in class can become anxious and exhausted and that triggers more stress.

The world's leading researcher on self-regulation Dr Stuart Shanker — who was the keynote speaker at the ECA National Conference last month — would really like us to see "poor behaviour" — especially disengagement, inattentiveness, restlessness and emotional outbursts — as more about poor self-regulation than bad children. I agree with him, especially about boys.

We need to let parents know that holding off the start to school is not a sign of poor parenting if your son needs longer to bloom and flourish. Indeed, it is actually a sign of good parenting.

Some boys just take a little bit more time to shine.

This is an edited extract from Mothering Our Boys: A guide for mums of sons by Maggie Dent, which is released 8th October. Maggie is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors and educators, and a regular Essential Kids contributor. In the book, she shares her insights from more than three decades of teaching and counselling boys, as well as her personal experience of raising four sons.  The book is available to pre-order from bookstores online and at www.maggiedent.com