THE AGE Newspaper article of Monday May 29th 2002.
By Margaret Cook (The Age)
May 29 2002
Four-year-old Isabel knows her alphabet and can count to 20, but is shy with adults. Matthew, her friend at pre-school, is full of confidence but loses his temper when he doesn't get his way. Then there's Jason, who is bigger than the other children but doesn't make friends easily.
Who will be ready for school next year, and who will benefit from another year at home or pre-school?
Many parents agonise over this decision, often turning to pre-school and prep teachers, carers and other parents for advice. While there is no simple answer, it's generally agreed that children must be socially and emotionally mature enough to cope with the extra demands of school, regardless of their age. But each child develops at a different rate, and many will undergo huge changes between now and next January.
The Department of Education and Training says children must be five by April 30 in the year of starting school, and must attend by the time they are six or receive an approved alternative tuition program. Because students must start school at the beginning of the academic year, this means a new prep class can range in age from four and three quarters to well over six.
How well children settle into school can have implications for their longterm education, says Dr Kay Margetts, a lecturer in primary and early childhood education at the University of Melbourne.
``It's about moving from a friendly environment at preschool or home to one where the adultchild ratio is very different,'' she says. ``More independence is required, the physical setting is bigger and there are more rules and many more children from different backgrounds. Also, school is about interacting with others and considering their needs, cooperation, controlling your responses and behaving in an appropriate way, not just reading and writing.''
Dr Margetts, who has researched the transition to school, says that 20 years ago, ``we didn't know it was a difficult step and we assumed children adjusted automatically''.
About 10 years ago, schools began to run orientation days, and now they run transition programs, with children attending halfadozen times in the year before they start.
Boys are more likely than girls to have social and behavioural problems, Dr Margetts says. But she adds that each child must be judged individually - for example, some may not have certain skills because they have never had the opportunity to develop them.
"The more children can do for themselves, the more successfully they will function at school,'' she says. "We also know that if they have had a variety of experiences, they will be more likely to have the skills and resilience to cope.''
Parents can help by developing their children's social and fine motor skills (such as using pens and staplers) and encouraging them to be more responsible and in control of their behaviour.
Kathy Walker, a lecturer in education at RMIT University, says it's better to go to school too late rather than too early, particularly in Victoria, which has one of the world's youngest starting ages.
"Over the past 10 years, there's been a pressure in society that the earlier children can read and the more extracurricular activities they do, the better off they will be,'' she says. "We're trying to turn them into pseudoadults, but many are heavily stressed.''
Ms Walker says this "pushdown of the curriculum'' means prep and kindergarten children are now taught what used to be covered in years 1 or 2, but she says young children need to be stimulated through an unhurried, playbased curriculum. Ideally, "instead of children being ready for school, school would be ready for them''.
Many children who are labelled as daydreamers, aggressive or slow learners, particularly boys, may have gone to school too early, she says.
Research has found that even if younger children cope academically, they are more likely to have problems later on, particularly at puberty, because they are less mature than their peers.
Some parents who are told their child is not ready for school ask, "How could he fail kinder?'' or "Does that mean I'm a bad parent?'' But variations in the age of schoolreadiness are no different to variations in the ages of walking and talking.
When assessing schoolreadiness, Ms Walker says parents should ask: Does my child initiate contact with other children? Is he able to entertain himself? Is she able to make things by herself? Can he express feelings by saying, "I need help'' or "I feel sad''? Can she say hello to adults, rather than hide behind Mum or Dad?
However, Anne Kennedy, a senior lecturer at Monash University's faculty of education, says there is not a lot of evidence to support the belief that ``young is not good'', despite strong anecdotal evidence that Victorian parents are holding their children back. She argues that an extra year at home or preschool will be beneficial only if the child is challenged with new experiences.
Family circumstances are also important, she says. Some parents need to return to work and may not be able to afford (or find) another year of preschool or child care. And if a mother is stressed because she is caring for younger siblings, ``school may be safer than home''.
Holding children back for the wrong reasons can be counterproductive. A large boy may not be considered ready for school because he doesn't mix well at preschool. However, this might be because he is bigger and less coordinated than his peers, and holding him back may exacerbate his social problems.
"It's better to ask: `Is the school ready for my child?,' '' Ms Kennedy says. "These issues probably wouldn't be so important if there weren't so much focus in schools on (learning) outcomes and structured literacy programs. Children who need to play more on an unstructured basis can't cope at school.''
She advises parents to be guided by their common sense and to talk to preschool teachers and carers. They should also visit schools and ask many questions.
"You may have decided your child won't cope with the highly structured environment, but the teacher may say: `We can work on these skills, that's not a real issue,' '' Ms Kennedy says. ``And your child will give you clues. If she cries during school transition programs and says she doesn't want to go, then you must listen and respect that.''
Judy Shaw, who teaches at West Hawthorn Preschool, says she is obliged to tell parents as soon as possible that their child is not ready, so they have time to make work, childcare or preschool arrangements for the next year.
``Usually you have a good sense by June or July who is ready, and by the end of the year the gap between them and the others has often widened,'' she says. "They are very interested in reading and writing, their play has extended and they're very confident.''
Other signs are: a level of maturity or calmness; an ability to cope when things go wrong; an ability to speak clearly and in front of the class; confidence in approaching adults and friends; respect for other people (for example, sharing toys and not grabbing); a willingness to tackle new tasks; and an ability to concentrate.
Ms Shaw agrees that ``it's better to be more mature than less'' and she tells children who do an extra year of preschool: ``You're my special friend and I want you to stay with me.''
Associate professors Sue Dockett and Bob Perry from the University of Western Sydney are researching the transition to school, which includes interviews with four and fiveyearolds, prep and preschool teachers, and parents.
The children said the two most important things were making friends and understanding ``the rules'' at school.
"Sometimes people are focused on skills such as being able to tie your shoelaces and write your name, but the children who are more likely to feel confident are those who have friends or can make friends,'' says Professor Dockett.
However, she says it's "too simple'' to say that a younger child will not cope as well as an older one, or that it's better for boys to wait a year, adding: "If we expect boys to be behind, we tend to treat them that way and that is how they turn out.''
Similarly, holding a child back in prep may not make adolescence any easier, because children go through puberty at different ages.
Parents send children to school for different reasons, she says. One mother told the researchers she was concerned her child would suffer if she held him back because he would be in the same class as his younger brother. Another parent believed her youngest child would benefit from being with his older siblings at school.
Cultural differences also play a part. Many families from non-English-speaking backgrounds believe ``school is an important place to be and they want their child to be there as soon as possible'', says Professor Dockett.
And schools vary in size, approach, teaching styles and subjects they specialise in. This means that ``even if a child is academically but not socially ready, they may cope well in a small, friendly school''.
Professor Dockett says the trend to hold children back means prep classes range in age from just under five to well over six, which is a concern itself. "The younger ones may not seem to be as good as the older ones because they have had less life experiences and learning opportunities.''
However, Helen Miller, the principal of Reservoir Primary School, says teachers are trained to cater for different ages and while children must be socially and emotionally ready, ``maturity is hard to pinpoint''.
For example, prep children get very tired and sometimes emotional in the first month, but this may not mean they have started too young. And the child who cries every day for the first few weeks may never have been separated from his mother before, and could later settle in well.
It's easy to confuse a lack of life experiences - such as visits to parks, museums and libraries - with a lack of maturity, says Ms Miller. Also, it's wrong to assume that children aren't ready for school because they haven't been to preschool, don't speak English or have different experiences and expectations of school - as can happen with some who were born overseas.
Those who have started too early stand out by June or July, Ms Miller says. ``They don't cope well with the work or everyday activities, and they get very upset by change - if their teacher is sick and they have an emergency teacher.''
Her experience is that children who do well in prep and year 1, but slip behind academically and socially in about year 2, tend to be the younger ones. Reservoir has composite classes and would suggest such children repeat prep/year 1 or year 1/2.
`If in doubt, don't start,'' advises Ms Miller. `Being older is not such an issue and they handle the work and social issues much better.''
Kelly Morris, who teaches at Talbingo Preschool in Narre Warren, says there is ``no hardandfast rule'' because children develop at different rates.
"We encourage parents not to look at age or to compare their child with others; it's about what each can and can't do,'' she says. "However, if they don't have the foundation (social and emotional) skills, they will find it difficult to cope with the learning side and general demands of school.''
Ms Morris says prep children must be able to solve some problems on their own, cope with having fewer adults to look after them and be able to stand up to other children. To this end, Talbingo's program focuses on developing confidence, self-esteem, independence and speaking skills, as well as practical skills, such as hanging up paintings, packing bags and pouring drinks.
CHILDREN MAY BE READY WHEN THEY: