|Evelyne's Mum 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 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 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 Finland that does well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys. And in Finland, the starting age is seven!