Introduction to School Readiness
Starting school can be an exciting yet daunting time for children, as well as for parents, and parents need to consider many factors when deciding if their child is ready to start their school journey or not.
As an early childhood teacher and a parent, this is something I get asked every year, in relation to the children who attend our early learning service, as well as from friends who have pre-school aged children.
Every child is very different and children will be ready at various ages but here are my top 10 considerations when evaluating a child’s school readiness;
Each state in Australia has different requirements when it comes to legal ages for starting school. You can see a state by state description of legal requirements here at transitiontoschoolresource.org.au. Generally, the average starting school age is 5 years old but some children will be ready at 4 and a half. In NSW, children are required to start school BEFORE they turn 6. In some cases, you can apply for special consideration to start school after the age of 6 if your child has additional needs or there is some other valid reason. You can approach your local school where you plan to enrol, for further advice.
2. Sharing and Taking Turns
The development of social and emotional skills is probably the most important consideration when deciding school readiness or not. If a child knows all of their alphabet and numbers but they fall apart when asked to share a toy they are using, or find the idea of turn taking very difficult, they are most likely not ready to start school. Some children may struggle with this concept well into their schooling years but with support and guidance, it will become easier for them.
You can role model sharing and turn taking skills with your child; showing them it can be beneficial for them as it builds important social connections. For example, when they offer their toy to another child close by, it makes the other child happy, therefore building a friendship and a bond with a peer. Make sure your child receives plenty of praise and encouragement when they display these positive social behaviours. You can find more information on sharing skills here at raisingchildren.net.au. When they have become comfortable with the concepts of taking turns and sharing, they will be in a much better position to begin their primary school journey.
3. Independence Skills
Can your child toilet themselves independently and take care of their own hygiene needs? Once they start school, they need to be doing all of this independently. There will not be teachers around to help them with this each time they need to go. If they have an accident at school, a teacher will most likely be around to assist them but they need to have had plenty of practice with managing their clothing, wiping themselves properly, and washing their hands effectively.
Can they open their own lunchbox, peel their fruit, open packets? These are important fine motor skills, as well as considerations for independence.
What about hygiene? Have they been taught how to clean their own nose, and sneeze or cough into their elbow? The more these things can be practiced before they start school, the better prepared they will be.
Can your child sit and listen to a story, showing interest? Do they ask questions about the story and can they answer comprehension questions? Do they sit and focus for the duration of the story, without getting too distracted? Can they do this in a group setting, as well as one on one? It’s important for children to be able to focus and pay attention for short periods (approx. 15 minutes) as the school teacher will require them to pay attention for discussions, stories and group work. Children will typically lose focus if they are not interested, so ensure they have plenty of practice with concentrating on activities or in group situations when they are INTERESTED. Make the effort to find a topic or a story they are interested in and encourage that prolonged focus by having a discussion, asking them questions, encouraging them also to question and to engage in conversation.
“Engaging children in reading experiences presents infinite opportunities for developing language and emergent literacy skills.” – Dept. of Education, VIC.
Department of Education, Victoria, describe many benefits of reading with children, particularly for emerging literacy and language skills, and therefore their school readiness.
Separating in the mornings without too much distress is an important part of emotional development. Some children will struggle with this more than others but generally, if your child separates fairly easily from parents or other caregivers in the mornings, when attending pre-school or day care, they will most likely adapt well when it comes to starting school, too. Obviously the school environment will be very different from what they are used to but if they are comfortable separating in their early learning environment, it shouldn’t be too long before this is the case with school as well, even if there is a short period at the start of the school year where this is a little difficult, while they are still in that transition period.
If your child still struggles with separation anxiety at aged 4 or 5, they may need more time before starting school but it is best to consult your child’s early childhood educators. BeYou.edu.au has further information on separation anxiety in children here.
6. Change and the Unexpected
The ability to cope with change, frustration and the unexpected, are also important elements of emotional development. If your child shows a fair amount of resilience and ability to cope when things don’t go the way they expect, or when routine is changed, they have probably acquired the important emotional skills required to cope well within the school environment. As a parent, we can help build our children’s resilience and coping strategies by role modelling how we cope when things go wrong, by doing things out of routine from time to time, and by helping children to problem solve when they need assistance, instead of always rushing to their aid and solving their problems for them. The ability to think critically, problem solve and find solutions can be vital skills for building coping skills and ability to cope with change.
BeYou.edu.au also has some valuable information on building resilience in young children, which can be found here.
7. Letters and Numbers
While I will always be an advocate for social and emotional school readiness as primary importance before the knowledge of alphabet and numbers, your child will need to have some basic literacy and numeracy skills. If your child can recognise their own written name, are learning to write their own name, can count to 20 and are starting to name some numerals and alphabet letters, they have a great start! They certainly DO NOT need to know all of their alphabet and phonetic sounds, all numbers to 20, or have to count to 100 or be reading! That is what school is for.
If your child is starting to learn to write their own name, it is important that they learn to start their name with a capital for the first letter, and lower case for the rest of the name. School teachers often need to put a lot of effort into correcting habits that are formed early, of children writing in only capitals.
Once they start school, they will cover alphabet and phonics, they will begin doing sight words and have plenty of writing practice. Of course, if they have a bit of a head start with the skills I mentioned above, they will be in a better position to further develop those important developing literacy and numeracy skills.
8. Focusing on a Set Task
Can your child sit and complete a set task such as a cutting activity, completing a puzzle or drawing a picture? It is important that they can learn to concentrate on a set task without becoming distracted. When they start school, they will be asked to sit at desks and complete activities such as drawing, writing, cutting and pasting and they need to be able to work independently, without distracting others or without one on one support from an educator. You can practice this at home by asking them to complete activities you set up for them. It could be any of the above suggested activities, but not a task on a screen, such as a screen game on a tablet or a phone. Screen based activities are very different and should be limited for young children.
Fine Motor skills are also linked in with completing set tasks as it often involves things like holding their pencil in a correct tripod grip, holding and using scissors effectively, opening and twisting glue sticks, writing and drawing tasks.
9. Following Instructions
Can your child follow 2 or 3 step instructions or directions? For example, ‘Johnny, can you go to your room, get your hat and then come outside?’ or ‘Sophie, could you please clean your nose with the tissue, put it in the bin, then wash your hands?’
Some children find this more difficult than others and it can take a fair bit of practice but if they can manage to listen to, process and follow 2 or 3 step instructions or directions, they are doing well. It may seem simple enough but remember this 2 or 3 step direction involves several elements; listening and paying attention to the instruction, understanding and comprehending what the instruction actually means, remembering what the steps are, completing them in the right order, carrying out all parts of the step correctly.
If your child is conversing with their peers, as well as familiar adults around them, they are developing the important language skills and confidence required to communicate with others effectively, develop social skills, express their needs and wants effectively, they are developing their resilience, their speech skills, problem solving skills and listening skills.
You can encourage your child to converse with others by modelling appropriate interaction, including them in conversations you are having with others, in a sensitive, meaningful way, and praising and encouraging their efforts to communicate.
If your child is reluctant to converse with others, they may need more time in social settings such as pre-school, day care or playgroup to develop those important skills. If you are concerned you should speak with your child’s early childhood educators or potentially ask for a referral to a speech therapist.
Summary of School Readiness
There are many factors to consider when making the decision about School Readiness. Your child may be ready to start school at 4 and a half, 5 and a half, they may be ready closer to 6 years old. If you have time on your side and you are unsure, I believe it is always beneficial to give them an extra year in pre-school or day care to ensure they are more than ready the following year. This list does not replace the valuable advice you will likely receive from your child’s early learning educators. It is recommended to check in with them mid year, before making the decision for the following year. They will often compete a Transition to School statement which you can view here. This T2S statement will be passed onto your child’s primary school to assist them in developing their knowledge of your child’s developmental level. You can always enrol your child in your local school and if you decide towards the end of the year to pull out and keep them in pre-school or day care for another year, you can withdraw your enrolment.
If you want to enrol your child in a NSW Government school, you can find an enrolment form here, but you will need to approach your local school to ensure you are in the correct catchment area. If not, the school may not allow your child to enrol, as the demand can become too high in some areas, and you may need to enrol only within your catchment, providing evidence of your residence.
Dept of Education, NSW has put together a helpful resource which you can view here which covers a few other aspects of starting school, when that time comes. They also have further information about the Transition to school which you can read here.
I hope this list helps some families out there who are on the cusp of making that decision about School Readiness for their child.
Please let me know in the comments!