Sunday, January 11, 2009

From the archives: Starting school, is there a best age?

This is a slightly modified version of a post I wrote in January last year.

In Australia many children will be starting school for the first time in 2-3 weeks. I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our eldest child off to her first day in Kindergarten (the first day of formal schooling). Now she is 31 with three children of her own and last year she sent her son, and our first grandchild, off to school. As grandparents we were just as nervous about Jacob going to school as we were with our first child (his mum!). But he's survived his first year at school and has done well, and so have his mother and father, who had to experience schools as parents, not as students.

In Australia the school year begins in the last week of January or the first week of February and ends in the same calendar year (in mid December). The starting age 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. 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.

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 5 and in the USA it varies from state to state.

So is there a best starting age? This is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. The short answer is that there probably isn’t. 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 across the ages 4 to 6 years don’t seem to make huge differences to children’s long term academic achievement.

One study conducted by Magliacano tested children in year 2 (the second year of formal schooling in the USA) who had started school in two different age ranges (young and old). They tracked those who started between 4 years 11 months and 5 years 4 months (the younger students), and those who started between the ages of 5 years 5 months and 6 years 1 month. The study found "no significant difference between the samples in reading test scores as a result of chronological age".

In a study published in the Journal of Educational Research, Sandra Crosser compared academic achievement indices of seventh to ninth graders who entered kindergarten at age five with similar children who entered at age six. There were some differences and "all statistically significant differences favoured older males and females, especially in reading for older males."

Sandra Crosser has also written a very readable piece for parents on this topic titled: He Has a Summer Birthday: The Kindergarten Entrance Age Dilemma.

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. It would seem that we need to make individual assessments for each child within the range 4-7 years, with most countries opting for 5-6 as the normal age to start. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling.

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 (pretty much unpack their own lunch)?
  • 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 could:
  • 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.
  • 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.
If all has been considered and the way forward is unclear I’d advise not sending your child at an early age. After all, there is little evidence to show adverse effects from starting late, but conversely there is some limited evidence to show that starting early might have some adverse effects for some children. An interesting postscript to this matter is that the country in the OECD that regularly has the highest school literacy levels is Finland, where the starting age is seven! While this isn't an argument for holding children back (there are many factors contributing to Finland's performance), it does suggest that holding your child shouldn't negative consequences for the long-term achievement.

Above: Jacob 12 months down the track after finishing his first year


Prue said...

We've ticked most of those boxes with our son, and he will start school this year, though he only turned five today. He does have a shortish attention span, and doesn't show a whole lot of interest in writing (though reading is another matter entirely - certainly interested in that!), but they (and his age) were the main detractors to starting school. So in a few weeks he will take the giant leap into formal learning. Should be an adventure!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Prue, he sounds like he's ready to me. All the best for the weeks ahead, I'm sure there will be a mix of emotions for you. Would love to hear how he get's on. Trevor

Karen said...

My daughter's birthday is the 28th March so she would spend the first couple of months in school as a 4 year old. She is quite capable and sociable at preschool but emotionally she is still quite needy. Her brother is 22 months younger, with his birthday being the end of January. So he would be turning 5 as he starts school. I would like them to be 2 years apart at school. Should I send them at these ages or hold them both back?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Karen, thanks for your question. It isn't easy to answer without actually knowing your children nor your school system. But my first question would be why would you want two years between them at school? I can't think of too many reasons for this but that's your choice. Putting this to one side the birth dates of both your children would be such that if they were going to school in most Australian states then their age would be okay. Of course there would be children who are older in their classes, but there would also be young children in our system. Having said this, you can probably tell from my post that my view is if you are uncertain, and you're happy having your children at home then wait a year for one or both. All the best, Trevor

Anonymous said...

My eldest is turning 5 on 25th Feb and my second turns 5 in 2 years on 22nd Jan....

So my first daughter will be 4 for about 1 month before she starts school... I felt this was too young so Im 'holding her back" much to the shock of parents and teachers at kindergarten "Send her! - Shes ready!".

This is my dilemma - she is bright, a leader amongst her peers, popular and wants to learn - however she is learning at home... I struggle thinking that she is too young to start and yet if I "hold her back" she may be in a class of preps who are immature and baby-like at4 and she will be frustrated and bored.

So if I hold her back, what do I do with the 2nd daughter... do they need to be 2 years apart - or as there would only be 1 months difference - do I hold her back too - or just send both of them at 4 turning 5!! I live in Australia and the trend is to have boys be 6 in prep - so should this be the same for girls. What doesnt help is that all her friends who have been 5 for months are going on to prep and my daughter would be repeating kinder... but she says she wants to play!

Trevor Cairney said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. In relation to your question:

" I hold her back too - or just send both of them at 4 turning 5!! I live in Australia and the trend is to have boys be 6 in prep - so should this be the same for girls."

It's hard to answer your questions without knowing the child but in general terms 4 years is very young for school. And there is nothing magical about a 2 years gap. Some parents talk about such gaps for practical reasons (not having successive years of high school leaving exams etc), but there is no good educational reason. Sometimes keeping your child with friends from preschool is a good idea but so many children move to go to school anyway that this is less relevant than it once was. With the proviso that I don't know much about your daughter, if she was my daughter, I'd hold her back.

I hope this helps,


P.S. Boys tend to develop more slowly in language so you shouldn't assume that boys and girls should be treated the same.