Decades ago, you may have started school before your fifth birthday and in fact, many Australian kids still do the same.
There’s no doubt that the Australian education system has changed dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years. The social, emotional and intellectual demands that will be placed on your child in his or her first year of formal schooling will differ greatly from those you experienced.
But when it comes to the question the best age at which to send your child to school, who should you turn to for answers? The ‘experts’? Your family? Or your own instincts?
For more than 15 years, author Steve Biddulph has been a high profile advocate of holding children, especially boys, back from starting school. In his 1997 bestseller Raising Boys he asserted that boys feel “inadequate” if they go to school before the age of six and that delaying their start to school has multiple social, emotional and cognitive benefits.
Biddulph’s book has been read by more than a million mums and dads around the world. He has influenced many an Australian parent into trying to give their child ‘the best chance of success’. This has usually resulted in an extra year at preschool and a delayed school start, all done in the hope that an older, stronger, more socially mature child will cope better than classmates who are ‘disadvantaged’ by their youth.
Most State-based Australian education systems require that children turn five before July 31 in order to commence school in that year, and yet there is an increasing number of Aussie kids who are being ‘held back’, resulting in age spans of up to 18 months in kindy and prep classrooms across the country.
The results of this relatively recent practice is yet to be fully documented here, however, researchers at the Michigan State University and the University of Illinois in the USA have found holding children back is not all that is promoted to be.
In a study of more than 40,000 American students, they found that any initial advantage older children had over their younger classmates tended to dissipate in the first few months and then sharply decline in subsequent years.
“Rather than providing a boost to children’s human capital development, delayed entry simply postpones learning and is likely not worth the long-term costs,” wrote the authors, Todd Elder and Darren Lubotsky.
And so the debate rages on…
Many parents are enthusiastically told about the success of siblings, cousins and neighbours in the months leading up to school readiness decisions.
Grandparents, who faced similar decisions more than 30 years ago, are often the most powerful forces to be reckoned with in this regard.
Ever tried explaining to your 60-something mother-in-law that your child is an individual with a unique learning style, and that it’s important that you make a choice that is based solely upon his needs?
Sometimes it’s not easy…especially if her son (your child’s father) was a boy wonder at the age of 4!
Between the ages of four and half and six, children are still developing the wide range of skills needed for schooling success.
No child is a replica of his brother, cousin or father so, as difficult as it may be for the family to accept, and despite having reached the right chronological age to start school, your child still may not be developmentally ready to start school next year.
From whom should I seek advice?
If you’re into November and you still haven’t decided if you’re sending your child to school in 2013, it’s probably time to stop researching and start talking to experts who can help you to make an informed decision.
It’s worth talking to your child’s prospective school about the age range of the group that your child might be part of next year.
If your child is socially and emotionally ready for the learning leap that going to school requires, age differences may not matter – but if you are concerned that your child will spend the next 13 years with a peer group that is predominantly 9-12 months older than he is, you may wish to talk further with the school about your options.
The professionals who probably know your child’s learning, social and emotional capacity best are the early educators who work with him at preschool.
These teachers have seen your child among his peers and should be able to give you clear and independent advice about his strengths and challenges.
An observant early educator who knows your child well is likely to be able to give you information about how your child’s levels of development compares with his peers and this could be crucial to your decision making.
Children’s health professionals who focus on supporting kids’ acquisition of functional learning skills are also good advisors. Paediatric Speech Pathologists and Occupational Therapists can offer excellent insights about a child’s school readiness and provide you with practical ways in which to support your child’s developing skills in the next few months so that they will be ready to start school.
Early learning and social skills programs
Finally, reputable health and education services who offer broadly based learning, language and social skills programs such as Kids First Children’s Services’ Confident Little Kids are worth contacting if you are not sure if your child is ready to start school. The exposure that your child receives to the conventions of learning with a group of peers could be of real benefit to his learning and interaction skills.
Send your child to school when he is ready to ‘thrive’, not just ‘cope’
Kids are at school for 13 years. It’s a long haul…and it can be made harder if a child is not quite ready when his journey begins.
If you are still unsure about whether your child should start school next year, talk to those who can offer you an independent opinion, consider all the things that only you as a parent can know about him – and trust your gut.