Monday, August 27, 2012

Is There a Best Age to Start School? It all depends.

My daughter Nicole on her first day of school
I wrote about this topic in January for readers 'Down Under', but in northern hemisphere nations like the USA and the United Kingdom, many children will start school for the first time in the next two weeks.  I can't remember my first day at school, but I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our two daughters off for their first day of formal schooling (this was some time ago). This year we had two grandchildren who started in Kindergarten (the entry class for Primary schooling in our state of New South Wales). One had just turned 5 and the other turned 6 one month into the school year. Both sets of parents made different decisions for equally good reasons, and I'm sure that in each case, they have made the right decisions for each child. In the seven months since they started, both have coped well with school. They've made friends, enjoyed their teachers, have learned to read and write, grown in mathematical understanding, won award cards, received good report cards and generally had a great time.

Two cousins starting school, one 5 and one 6

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.

My daughter Louise on her 1st day
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 five and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

So is there a best starting age? If there is, few education systems seem to agree on what it is. "Should my child start school at five even though....(fill the blank)?" is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. Earlier in the year I was interviewed on commercial radio on exactly this topic, and have done this a few times over the years. The short answer I give in radio interviews is the same one I give to parents - "it all depends". Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but variations from four and a half to six years don’t seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement.

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 and will they cope with a new degree of independence?
  • 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 my child emotionally ready?
  • 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)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

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.
Ultimately, parents need to make this decision based on what they know about their child. There are some other things worth considering:
  • 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.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are only four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start till they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that the country in the OECD that regularly has the highest school literacy levels as measured by PISA surveys is Finland, where the starting age is seven!


Libby said...

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for this timely post. We held our boy back this year and put him in Kindergarten (we are in Perth, it's like NSW preschool - 2.5days per week) this year even though he was 5 in June. We had to decide what to do almost a year before he started so that made it difficult. The thing that clinched our decision was that we were moving states just before school started and then having our 3rd baby a few months later. So we thought keeping him with some home days was wise. Now we have run into the problem that he is miles ahead intellectually and so we have a meeting tomorrow to talk about him skipping Pre-Primary and going into the class he should have started in. Most parents don't hold their kids back in Perth so he has been with quite a few 3.5 year olds this year - it's been a rather obvious gap.

But your post has encouraged me that even if he doesn't move up, he will still be ok.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Libby. Glad it was reassuring.