Formal education for children in Australia begins between the ages of four and six, depending on which state or territory you live in, and in which month your child is born. If your child is near the cusp of age eligibility to start primary school, they could be a whole year younger than the other children in their class cohort during their time at school.
With this in mind, debate rages amongst parents, teachers, and educational researchers about what makes a child ‘ready’ to start school. Is it being able to recite your ABCs? Or is it more about emotional intelligence? Some parents choose to keep their child at home or in an early learning centre for an additional year. As a parent, how do you determine whether your young child is mature enough to cope with the demands of school?
What does the research say?
Like so many aspects of parenting, there are different schools of thought when it comes to the question of school readiness. In one recent assessment of the issue, Deakin University education expert Professor Helen McGrath pointed out that ‘maturity’ is something that develops with experience, not just age: “If we waited to be totally ready for everything we have to do, we wouldn’t do very much.”
Professor McGrath’s research suggests that four year olds can actually do well in Prep academically because they are stimulated by striving to catch up to older classmates. On the other hand, five year olds who’ve been held back in kindergarten can become bored and potentially act up or lose interest in education.
This is in contrast to a 2015 Danish study that showed strong evidence that delaying school starting age had short and long term advantages for learning.
The major benefit was in reducing levels of inattention and hyperactivity, meaning students were more focussed and better at self-regulation before they took on actual academic activity. The flow on effect of this improved impulse control was improved results right through until the children in the cohort were 11 years old (when the study ended).
What’s happening in the classroom?
It’s very common for young children to experience some degree of separation anxiety and ‘culture shock’ when they move from the play based learning of a childcare centre into a structured classroom experience. Early years teachers expect to have to go the extra mile with new students who are transitioning into formal learning.
At the same time, with 20 or 30 students demanding their attention, it’s not possible for teachers to attend to every request. For this reason, some teachers feel older children, who are more independent, will cope better with starting school.
Anjuli is a mother of four and a teacher in a Brisbane primary school. She says that self-sufficiency is the key to determining when a child is ready for school, rather than literacy or numeracy skills.
“I've had preppies [pupils in pre-grade one at primary school] who have been sent too early and they can really suffer from anxiety,” Anjuli says. “They just can't last the day. We especially see this in children who haven’t attended pre-school or day care, or even a playgroup, before starting school.” Anjuli suggests some of the key indicators of a child who is not emotionally ready for school include:
- not being able to interact with their peers and take turns,
- not being able to recognise or locate their own belongings,
- not communicating that they need to go to the toilet,
- not being able to toilet on their own – or, if they have an ‘accident’, not being able to communicate this to the teacher, and
- not being able to open lunch items or drink bottles.
It’s helpful if children can recognise their name, or at least the first letter in their name by the time they start school, but emotional resilience is what creates good long term learners.
“Preppies who are a little older just seem more confident and able to last the day a bit better,” Anjuli says.
Ultimately, as a parent, you probably know your child better than anyone. At the same time, professional assessments and the opinions of educators can go a long way towards helping in your decision.
Whatever you decide, be prepared to work as a team with teachers and health professionals to give your child the best chance of success as they start their school journey.
If you’re unsure about the school starting age in your state or region, refer to the table at the bottom of our article on school year levels by age.
BREAK OUT BOX - What do parents say?
Consider an external assessment
Veronica is a north Brisbane primary teacher whose son started school this year. Knowing her son would be one of the youngest in his class when school started, Veronica considered holding him back for an extra year.
“We sought advice from childcare educators who expressed that our son was academically ready for school but socially still had a lot to learn,” Veronica explains.
There were many factors to weigh up. Veronica’s son was quite tall for his age, so would stand out in a younger group if he started the following year. He also wanted to start school with the friends from his pre-school group.
“In the end we decided to send our son to school along with his friends and we’re very happy that we made that decision,” says Veronica. Her son still struggles socially on occasion, but he’s happy and progressing well academically.
Veronica found it useful to have an assessment done by an Occupational Therapist, which she was able to pass on to the school at the start of the year. “The OT was helpful in showing us what his strengths were and what areas our son needed help with in order to be an engaged learner.”
Delaying the inevitable
Melbourne mother, Susan, is taking advantage of a recent relocation to enrol her daughter in a new school, where she will repeat Year 7.
She wishes she hadn’t turned down previous recommendations for her daughter to repeat a year at Pre-school, then Prep (pre-grade one).
“We regretted it more and more each year”, she says. “Then, in grade 2, she was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, which explained a whole heap of stuff!”
Asperger’s is becoming easier to manage and better understood by the general population, while some experts argue against calling it a disability. Still, those diagnosed with the condition regularly encounter social and academic difficulties that can make their time at school quite tough.
This was an important factor in Susan’s decision, and she made sure to talk it through with her daughter. She made sure that, in the end, it was her decision too.
“We made a list of pros and cons with her: the fact she was the very youngest in her grade and struggling academically, that she could make new friends, and that she would be the eldest in her grade; having already completed Year 7 at her existing school we thought would give her a confidence boost.”
She says her daughter was worried that she was “stupid”, but after addressing her worries and talking through the positives, after a few weeks she was eager to talk about a fresh start at a new school.
Susan’s advice for parents in a similar situation is that they do their research and keep their child involved in the process.
“Involve the school and seek out their professional opinion” she advises. “Keep your child informed, if appropriate. Make certain they know the decision isn’t being made lightly. Remember, children don’t make decisions based on what’s the best outcome for their education – they think about the immediate!”