Friday, July 21, 2017

Is There a Best Age to Start School?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic almost three years ago when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia, most of our schools commence the year in late January at the end of our summer break. In the Northern hemisphere, of course school starts in Aug-Sept. 

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In my home state of 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.

This week some new research has been in the news that suggests there is a trend in Australia to hold back children for longer instead of sending them when they are eligible. The research suggested that "... the proportion of parents holding children back until they turned six almost doubled between 2010 and 2014, climbing from 1.5 per cent to 2.9 per cent". While parents doing this are in a minority, clearly some are making different choices. But why?

The new research in Australia considered over 224,000 students, and suggests that there was a trend towards more boys being held back. The reasons for this vary, but most parents are making choices based on their sense that their child might do better in education in the long term if they have an extra year to mature,

In my previous posts on this subject I have concluded that the question about the 'best age' to start school 'all depends' on the child and the family circumstances. Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but this varies from child to child, between the ages of four and a half to six years. As well, previous research has suggested that variations in starting age in general, don't seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement. In other words, it might just be that your child should be held back.

One of the interesting comments in the latest research was to show that parents are often worrying about behaviour and maturity in their boys, and even thinking about the consequences of their behaviour well into their adolescent years. The foundation of these thoughts would seem linked to fears of their children becoming victims of misadventure, crime, loss of university options etc. In other words, their immaturity affecting more than just their learning. Some parents of course choose home schooling for the same reasons, as well as a desire to shape the character of their children in the home. These are all legitimate concerns, but obviously what they suggest is just what I said at the beginning of this post, there is no magic age and parents need to make wise choices IF they are able to. This is a big 'if' because clearly some families don't have a stay at home parent that can care for them, and hence must rely on expensive childcare options. Some families don't have the luxury of choice. 

In reality, if we have the freedom to make the choice to hold children back we need to make our own 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!). 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 the decision about the starting age based on what they know about their child. There are some other things you need to consider:
  • 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 countries like Finland where children don't start till they are seven (!) do well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys (more details can be found HERE).

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