Sunday 22 October 2017

Dear David Coleman: What is the best age for my son to start school?

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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My son will be five in November. He is a lovely, caring and affectionate little boy. However, he is extremely shy and had real difficulty settling in to preschool this year. At a sample karate lesson recently, the teacher said he wasn't yet ready to start as he wasn't able to follow simple instructions. Should I let him start primary school in September? I think the structure of school will be good for him, but the fact that he is so shy and unsociable makes me wonder if he will cope. If I wait another year, will he be too old?

David replies: There is no "correct" age at which children should start school. Here in Ireland, we are lucky that we have the choice to start them at age four or age five (they must be enrolled by age six). In some countries they must start once they are four. In other countries, like Sweden and Finland, formal primary school doesn't start until children are seven.

My personal belief is that the later children can start school, the better. The older they are, the more ready they are likely to be for the considerable social, academic and emotional pressures they often face. Indeed, it is their readiness in these areas that is our best guide in relation to when to start them.

Sometimes, domestic and financial pressures mean that parents are keen to start their children in school as soon as possible, and while such pragmatism may have to rule the day, I do believe that children will benefit from being at least five before they start, as they are more likely to be ready.

Specifically for your son, then, you need to look at his potential readiness. Socially, you have already received feedback from his preschool experience that suggests he found it hard to cope with the busy social environment of lots of peers.

Other questions to ask yourself are: how able is he to stand up for himself with his friends? Will he find it easy to make new friends in school? Does he find it easy to integrate into a group of peers? How comfortable is he with the normal rough and tumble of children's play and social interactions?

On a more positive front, while the shyness you describe may have been a factor at the start of the preschool year, has it changed for him since? Did he, in fact, establish a comfortable circle of friends and feel like he fit in? His preschool teacher may be a really good source of information about how well he is doing now.

His preschool teacher may also have an opinion about his general readiness, including his academic and emotional readiness.

Academic readiness is not so much about their grasp of the letters and numbers, which many preschools will have begun with children. Rather, it is about their ability to focus and concentrate, their levels of fidgetiness, or their distractibility.

Children will learn things at different rates, but creating the right environment for themselves to learn in is as important as what they have learned.

Again, you have a source of information, this time from the karate teacher, who suggested that your son wasn't ready to learn karate. There may have been lots of other factors involved there, including a big class size, unfamiliar surroundings and feeling overwhelmed. However, their observation that he seemed to find it hard to follow basic instructions might be relevant.

Emotionally, the considerations are mostly about your son's ability to cope with strong feelings like frustration, anxiety or disappointment. How does he tolerate rules and being told what to do? While you don't need him to be entirely emotionally robust, it will help if he has some emotional resilience. Other considerations you might want to include are about the environment of the school he would be going to. How many would be in his class? How might the teacher approach the issue of helping him to settle?

So, perhaps visit the school, meet the Junior Infants' teacher and the principal and then add the information you glean to your own sense of your son's readiness.

In that way, you make as informed a decision as possible about what might be best for your son.

 

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