Friday, January 23, 2015

Starting School: Is there a perfect age?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic in January 2014 when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. 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).

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before 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. The short answer I give is "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. 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 in many areas of self care?
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, engage in 10 minutes  of screen time without being easily distracted, 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. It was second in the latest rankings for reading, and yet, the starting age in Finland is seven!


Ping said...

I'm curious to know what effect you think it would have on a younger child to be in a class with markedly older children. According to your list of school-readiness criteria I think my son would be ready to start school next year (his birthday is 1 April), but in our town the trend is to hold kids back, and I worry about him being up to 18 months younger than his classmates. We can't really afford another year of childcare, especially when he seems ready for school, but we also don't want to throw him to the proverbial lions!

Trevor Cairney said...

This is a tough question to answer without knowing the child. As you can see from my post I tend to suggest holding children back if you're unsure, but of course your circumstances might make this hard. Boys are also slightly more risky to push early but again, it depends on the child. If he is well adjusted, finds it easy to play with other children, knows many letters, can read his name, count to 10+, can care for his belongings etc then maybe he'll cope. The issue of having older children isn't the biggest problem he will face and most kids can cope with this. Note also that the requirements for school entry do vary state by state. At the end of the day you will need to make this call. I guess you have until next year to decide (I'm assuming that you are in Australia). Good luck with the decision.

Ping said...

Thanks, Trevor – yes, of course this isn't something one can judge without knowing the child, but I was specifically interested to hear your thoughts about the age range within the year level.

We're working with his kinder teacher to help determine his school readiness, but I do feel the trend towards red-shirting has lead to a bit of an arm's race situation and I wish I could base my decision solely on his readiness rather than having to fit in with everyone else holding their kids back.

We're in Victoria, so the cut-off is the end of April. I started school at four, so it seems normal to me, and I was very surprised to learn that people were allowed to hold children back if they didn't have developmental issues.

Trevor Cairney said...

The age range shouldn't be an issue, good teachers can handle composite classes with 2+ years age range. I taught in a one-teacher school for a number of years with (at one stage) 31 children in 7 grades (K-6) in the one room. One year I had 5 kinders and children in every other grade. All children coped well and it was like a big family. If you have a good kindergarten teacher it shouldn't be a problem if your child is ready.

Ping said...

Thanks for your help, Trevor – I appreciate it.