Is your child ready for school?

How do you know when the time is right?
How do you know when the time is right? Photo: Getty Images

With schools already taking enrolments for 2014, some parents face the pivotal decision of whether to enrol, or hold their child back, from school. The Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) National Report: A Snapshot of Early Childhood Development in Australia 2012 highlights “that getting it right in those early years allows children to thrive throughout school and into their adult lives, providing benefits for the whole community and nation.” So how do parents equip themselves to get it right?

Thirty years ago, it was as simple as celebrating a birthday. If a child met the minimum age requirement they were sent to school. Today the decision is more complex. All Australian states have different minimum age requirements and cut-off dates for school entry. Parents whose children are born after that specified cut-off date live in the luxury of having to make no decision. But parents whose children are born in the precarious months leading up to it face a grey area of indecision.

At the time of the AEDI, the average age of children in their first year of formal full-time school was 5 years and 7 months. Even at this age, boys were “more likely to be developmentally vulnerable than girls on all of the AEDI domains and more likely to be developmentally vulnerable on two or more of the AEDI domains.” So immediately parents need to ask is my child old enough and question if girls are more ready than boys.

My son is a March baby, so I had to answer both these questions. My husband and I felt under pressure to send him to kindergarten the moment he turned three. Even though he was still toilet training, suffering from separation anxiety and on some days fell asleep the moment I picked him up from his session, we persisted with the idea that he was ready for school. He wasn’t. As the other children were transitioning to four-year-old kindergarten, we decided to hold our son back for a second go at three-year-old. This second year gave him a chance to catch up, gain confidence, thrive and flourish in an environment he previously was struggling in. Now in his first year of formal schooling, he is on par with his peers, confident and enthusiastic about school. Getting it right for us meant focusing on the needs of our son and not just meeting a minimum age bench mark.

In her thirty-six years of teaching at Sunshine Park Estate Kindergarten and as Kindergarten Advisory Officer for BPA Children’s Services, Lyn Saunders believes that for the children that need it, an extra year in kindergarten “empowers them to be stronger” so that “they become leaders instead of followers” when in formal school. Not only has she “never had a parent regret holding their child back,” in her experience “gender has never come into it all” when making this decision. Lyn believes that “conversations should be happening” with the kindergarten teacher, the Maternal and Child Health nurse and even the new school. Conversations centred on the child’s life skills, emotional stability, assertiveness, self-image, self-confidence and that “gender shouldn’t make a difference” when having these discussions. Lyn urges parents that getting it right is “based on each individual child.”

Getting it right for us meant focusing on the needs of our son and not just meeting a minimum age bench mark.

Despite having a birthday fall in the months leading up to the minimum starting age, some children are ready. Child Behaviour Consultant and Researcher Nathalie Brown from Easy Peasy Kids echo’s that “every child is an individual case and there are so many factors to consider.” She suggests that “a lot of school readiness comes when they are there.” Nathalie prompts parents into role playing, with the child as the teacher and the parent as the student. Such role playing encourages children to show what their fears and expectations are about school. If parents then “cover all their questions and fears they may have” this may be enough to get it right. Nathalie asks parents to be mindful that “anything new takes an adjustment period” and given this chance to adjust, even younger children can thrive at school.

The simplicity of blowing out five candles on a birthday cake and this being enough reason to start school no longer holds true for our generation of children. Age can be a contributing factor, but it comes down to maturity rather than chronological age. Author and Director of Early Life Foundations, Kathy Walker stresses that because of the young starting age in Australia, “it is extra important that you have a degree of maturity to get you through.”

Parents should ask:

  • Can my child control their emotions?
  • Can they control their behaviour?
  • Are they independent?
  • Can they follow directions?
  • Can they adapt to new and unexpected events?

Kathy insists that while research may show that boys are maturing a little more slowly in these early years we should not “pigeon hole boys and girls,” but instead to “take each child as they are, where some girls will need extra time and some boys will need extra time.” Kathy encourages parents to follow these guidelines.

School readiness guidelines:

  • Are we in a rush? School is not a race and successful learning is more than just being able to cope.
  • Constant communication. Parents have the expertise in their child’s personality and the pre-school teacher has the expertise in the child’s maturity, work together to make the best decision.
  • There is nothing wrong. Holding a child back because of their maturity does not reflect on your abilities as a parent or say that there is something 'wrong' with your child.
  • Err on the side of caution. If in doubt, a bonus year allows extra time to consolidate and mature, with everything to gain from this year and nothing to lose.

My youngest son is an April baby and with school enrolment forms sitting on our kitchen bench we face making this decision again. His strengths and weaknesses are very different to his brother. Yet our process will be the same. The specific needs of our son will be weighed up against giving him the best possible chance to thrive throughout his school life.

What has your experience been with deciding when to send your child to school? Leave your comment below.