One in three kids at risk of 'not being ready' for kindergarten, new study

Photo: A new study has found there is a bigger picture to consider when determining whether a child is ready to start school.
Photo: A new study has found there is a bigger picture to consider when determining whether a child is ready to start school. Photo: iStock

My little boy, who turned five in September, is all set to start kindergarten next year.

When I say, 'all set', I say it with some trepidation and uncertainty. 

He's the 'correct' age, tick. He's been attending a preschool program at daycare for the last two years, tick. He's enrolled in a wonderful and incredibly supportive school, tick. And we've been busy at home trying to help prepare him (and us!) for the new environment and routine, tick.  

But for a number of reasons, I'm still nervous about this huge transition. 

As many parents grapple with the pivotal decision of whether to 'hold back' or 'send', I know I'm not alone. 

And now, a new study has validated our feelings. 

According to new Australian research, some 30 per cent of kids are at elevated risk of not being ready for school in some way. 

The study, conducted by Telethon Kids Institute, looked at 4,000 Aussie families with kids in their first year of full-time school to better understand the link between school readiness and how this related to academic performance and emotional and behavioural difficulties at ages eight to nine.

While 70 percent of kids fell into the Developmentally Enabled group, the other 30 per cent were at risk from a host of factors including parental influences, emotional readiness, language skills and developmental vulnerabilities.

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"This study has given us a rich insight into the complex factors that impact a child's preparedness to start school, and the long-term benefits of ensuring young students are ready to learn," said lead author Daniel Christensen.

While school readiness is an important predictor of a child's future success and is often thought of in terms of formal assessments made at the start of a child's education, the study showed other factors are 'just as important' when working out how ready a child was for school.

"We found that school readiness is much more than the skills and capabilities that children have when they arrive at school, but also includes how well families, schools, and communities can help children to transition to school," Christen told Essential Baby.

"Children can do well on standardised tests but still be at higher risk for problems due to factors in their home environment."

For example, the team found a group of children (about 16 per cent) who did well on tests at kindergarten, but were still at risk for lower academic achievement and emotional and behavioural difficulties at ages eight to nine because of a home environment where parents were low in parenting consistency, were uncertain about their parenting skills, and more likely have mental health difficulties.

According to Christensen, when we determine whether a child is 'ready for school', the focus needs to shift away from the child's capacities to a more holistic view of factors outside the child.

What's really important? The context the child grows up in.

"Improving school readiness is not just up to educators, or families, but also the broader community," he told Essential Baby.

"Education is the biggest investment society makes in a child's life, and we should always be striving to get the balance right."

Tips to help prepare your child for school  

If your child is starting school next year, here are some ideas to help them get familiar with the school environment, according to raisingchildren.net.au 

  • If your child is at a preschool or early childhood centre with a school transition program, try to make sure your child is at preschool on the days the children visit 'big school'.
  • If your child isn't at preschool, visit the school yourselves, or see whether the school runs its own transition program.
  • Visit the school and if possible meet your child's teacher. Let your child know that teachers are there to help, and she can ask for help any time.
  • Show your child where the after-school care facilities are, if you're using them.
  • Make sure your child knows where you'll be picking him up.
  • Explain the basic school rules and why rules are important. For example, 'If you want to go to the toilet you need to ask. Otherwise the teacher won't know where you are'.

Here are some ideas about managing mixed feelings about starting school: 

  • Try to organise playdates with other children before the first day of school. It can help if your child knows another child going to the same school before school starts.
  • Give your child lots of love and support. Be excited and enthusiastic about your child starting school. This sends your child the positive message that school is exciting and that she'll cope and have fun.
  • Read a children's book about starting school with your child. 
  • Think about how you'll manage your feelings on the first day. Even if you're feeling sad or worried, it can help to keep these feelings from your child. Instead, try to see your child off with a happy, confident goodbye – and plan something nice for yourself too.