Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What is the Best Starting Age for Schooling

I last wrote about this topic in August 2012 for readers in northern hemisphere nations like the USA and the United Kingdom. In Australia most of our schools are returning next week and many children will start school for the first time.  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 have a grandchild who will start in Kindergarten, which is the entry-level class for Primary schooling in our state of New South Wales. Evelyne (pictured opposite at her dance concert) was born with a rare genetic disorder which presents some physical challenges that require her to have additional support. So for her parents, the question isn't just is she ready for school but is the school going to be able to meet her quite specific physical needs?

Evelyne's Mum Louise on her 1st day
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 six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing.

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 when I've been interviewed on commercial radio several times about this topic. 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. My granddaughter Evelyne has been ready for school intellectually for a year but in her case the physical demands of schooling need also to be considered when choosing a start time (as well as the school).

It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school. 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? 
  • 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.
  • Are they toilet trained and independent?
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 reading until 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 Finland that does well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys. And in Finland, the starting age is seven!


McKenzie Smith said...

i. I come from the perspective of a soon to be special education teacher. Although I do not yet have my own classroom (I am working as a graduate assistant and obtaining my masters degree in special education adaptive curriculum) I have a particularly strong viewpoint from that as a special education teacher. I think it is of the upmost importance for students to start school as soon as possible. Schooling provides an excellent opportunity to find out if a child does have a specific disability or area of concern. If your child is born and it is evident that there is a specific disability, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is for that child to receive intervention as soon as possible. In the United States, most states have adapted a Babies Can’t Wait Program in which the child is eligible for free services from birth through three years old, and then lottery funded preschool education for three to five year olds. Research has demonstrated time and again that early intervention is single handedly the best indicator for student achievement if the student does have a specific disability. Educators are trained to know how to assist the student and make changes to their Individualized Education Plan while laying foundations that will only help the student on their quest through the educational system.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi McKenzie, nice to have a comment from a graduate about to become a teacher. You are quite correct that early intervention is well documented as vital for any child experiencing learning problems. But my post wasn't about 'early intervention', it was about the best age for formal school entry (i.e. elementary school in the US). While research supports early intervention, it does not agree with your statement that it is of "the upmost (sic) importance for students to start school as soon as possible". There is no best (or vital) starting age for formal schooling. Thanks for dropping by, I hope you find your own classroom soon.

Katherine Collmer said...

Trevor, Thank you for this insightful and educational article about school starting age. You have hit the vital areas upon which parents should focus as they lead their child on this important educational journey. I have met parents in the recent past that have asked me to teach their 3- and 4-year-olds to write - with a tripod grasp no less. I am dismayed by the prevalent trend that children need to begin formal learning as early as 2 and 3, when playing is actually their natural mode of learning. I will share your article far and wide! Thanks, again!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Katherine, Always nice to hear from you, thanks for your comment. Yes, it's depressing!