|Two cousins ready to start school, one almost 6, one just 5|
In Australia the school year begins in the last week of January or the first week of February and ends in the same calendar year (in mid December). Every year we have media discussions concerning the best age to start. Last week, there was yet another piece of research being discussed on Australian television and radio offering advice. The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they are five years old or turn five prior to the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than 6. In South Australia children can start in the school term after they turn five. In Queensland there is a non-compulsory Prep year (like preschool) followed by formal school entry if the child turns six before the 30th June in that year. It’s all a bit confusing and the Federal government has been discussing a standard starting age for some time.
In other countries we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain 5 and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.
|Elsie's Mum on her 1st day at school|
It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school, so there isn't much pointing asking anyone what it is. In reality, we need to make individual assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.
Is my child physically ready
- Are they toilet trained?
- Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro! And Kindergarten teachers are good at it anyway). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
- Can they feed themselves (pretty much unpack their own lunch)?
- How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
- Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
- Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
- If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
- Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
- Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, watch some television, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
- Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
- Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
- Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
- What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
- What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
- What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
- What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
An interesting postscript to this matter is that the country in the OECD that regularly has the highest school literacy levels is Finland, where the starting age is seven!