When is a child ready for school - or not? For the parents of Rhonda, the decision is easy. Rhonda will be 5.5 years of age at the start of the school year, she is tall and sporting with strong social skills. Similarly, Peter's parents have no real decision to make. Peter can already read dozens of words, he is independent and confident for his age. He too will be going to school.
Yet many parents are looking hard at their children right now and making tough decisions. For a child's readiness for school is based not only on their age and intellectual readiness, but also on their physical, emotional and social maturity. No child will excel in all five areas. Parents must assess each child's capabilities as a whole. Do strong mathematical and reading skills outweigh the disadvantages of shyness? Can highly developed social qualities make up for a small stature and physical frailty? The question of school readiness is complex. No wonder many parents are losing sleep at this time of year.
For non-parents, the decision seems simple. The child is the legal age, so send them to school. Yet basing the decision on age alone is too simplistic. Even the education bodies of different States can't agree on the 'right' age a child is ready for school. Many parents are holding their children back, following research showing that generally the older a child starts school, the better. Think of how much a child of five has already learnt in those five short years. They've gone from a helpless, mewling baby to an individual who can walk, talk, swim, divide five pieces of cake to the exact crumb between four people and argue with increasing complexity why they don't feel like cleaning up their bedroom! A year can make a big difference to how they cope at school.
For boys, this can be an especially important aspect. Males tend to mature more slowly than females. Their fine motor skills (utilised when holding pencils and paint brushes, etc) are not as developed, they find it physically difficult to sit still for long periods and a NSW study found that 8 out of 10 boys with learning difficulties had started school at a very young age.
Intelligence is only one of the five factors which influence school success, but everyone seems to look at this area first. Most kids of this age can write their own name (if it's short!) and can draw Mum with a head and body and sometimes even the right number of arms! Advanced mathematics in Prep, means that James can count to ten or twenty and divide four chocolate frogs between himself and his sister and not wind up with a bloody nose. Schools need small children to sit still for quite long periods of time. Will they concentrate on a simple join the dots puzzle, curl up and listen to a story - or do they get restless and jump up half-way through?
When was the last time you tried sitting and listening for 6 hours in a crowded room? Look around any adult training seminar at the number of nodding heads and you'll soon realise that school students need lots of stamina. Are the little ones healthy? Can they last the whole day without a nap? Some schools end early for the first month or term and this is a real help to exhausted new students.
There are lots of everyday skills schools need children to have mastered. Like blowing a nose and going to a toilet alone and putting shoes on and off. (Velcro tabs instead of shoe laces are great!) Motor co-ordination needs to be developed so that children can not only skip, hop and jump (gross motor skills), but also hold a crayon and draw lines or circles (fine motor skills). Finally, height is related in our minds to superiority. (Judges sit on the 'High Bench' and we bow before Royalty to make ourselves lower, murmuring 'Yes, your Highness.') If a child is small, another year's worth of growing before they start school may help.
For children to be at ease in the classroom and the school yard, they need to be able to separate easily from their parents. Second and later children are usually better at this than the first born (having had more practice) and Kindergarten is often a wonderful introduction to the idea that good things really can happen away from parents. However, children mature emotionally at differing rates. If they scream and sob when you leave them with a friend for ten minutes, imagine the scene at the school yard gate on the first day!
Many schools list confidence, responsibility and independence as major qualities of a school beginner. It is a pretty big list, even for adults! Don't be daunted - schools expect kids to have some measure of these qualities - and learn more over the years. They don't expect superb aplomb and charismatic leadership from someone who is still at the age where shoelaces give trouble. It helps greatly in the interests of a calm and orderly classroom if children have enough self control to have grown out of the temper tantrum stage. Although be warned, after an exhausting day in the classroom, temper tantrums may suddenly reappear for a while at home!
Kids with high social skills tend to be successful school learners. This makes sense. Any child, who has just spent lunch time being told to 'Get lost!' or worse, will be far too unhappy to care if giraffe is spelt with one 'f' or three. By the age of five or more, children probably have learnt the benefits of sharing and listening to others. If they are still in the hitting, grabbing, bossy or 'my turn!' stage, problems may loom. Studies of gifted children reveal than a large majority of them have a highly developed sense of humour. The ability to laugh can certainly help to grease the wheels of social intercourse.
Being able to communicate with friends and adults is one of the most important skills in schools. Teachers are busy people and (despite what kids think) they are not all-seeing and all-knowing. If a child needs help with work, they need to be able to ask the teacher. If they want to go to the toilet, they should have the confidence to say so, before a puddle starts on the floor.
Putting it together
Parents have many avenues they can tap for guidance about their child's readiness for school - kindergarten teachers, child care workers, psychologists and paediatricians. But it is parents who see their child in action the most - and in the end, the decision must be theirs alone. Often they go with a 'gut' feeling - really nothing more than an unconscious judging of all the complex factors outlined here. Their child is eager to learn and secure in themselves, and instinctively parents know they will view school as a very happy experience.
(C) Jen McVeity, National Literacy Champion.
The fun Seven Steps to Writing Success program, by successful author, Jen McVeity, is in 900+ schools. Suited to the home school curriculum & gifted children, it has rapidly increased students' writing skills and enjoyment. Visit http://www.sevenstepswriting.com for top writing tips and activities - more in the free Parent Newsletters. Click on 'Sample' tab for a free Story Starters Worksheet.