Sunday 17 December 2017

Clinical psychologist David Coleman: How to know if your 4-year-old is ready for school in September

Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises parents on whether or not children should be sent to school at age four.
Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises parents on whether or not children should be sent to school at age four.

Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises parents on whether or not children should be sent to school at age four.


September is looming like a dark cloud. My first-born is due to begin school in a few weeks, but she will only be four years and seven months old. I am in a dilemma as to whether to send her or keep her out for another year. Would I be damaging her by sending her too young, when things like reading and homework are expected in junior infants? Do I leave it for another year and risk damaging her socially, as some friends will be a year ahead of her in school? What if she is too advanced or bored if I leave her for another year?

David's advice

The fact that you have your daughter enrolled to start school, but feel like that enrolment "looms like a dark cloud" suggests that, in your heart, you feel this September is too soon for your daughter to begin school.

Your dilemma, however, I could imagine is shared by many parents around the country. In truth, there is no "correct" age at which a child should start school.

However, the primary factors to consider are your child's social, emotional and academic readiness (as best you can judge). It is your child's development in these areas that will give an indication of whether, or how well, she will cope in school.

I do hear your other concerns, about the academic pressure to learn to read and write and do homework, that she may face too soon. I also hear your concern about the potential to miss out, socially, if she waits till next year. But, if we return to a consideration of the "readiness" factors that I suggested, it may help you with your decision making.

So, socially, where do you think your daughter is at? It seems like she already has a social circle (presumably from preschool or the local neighbourhood). How easy does she find it to make friends? How comfortable does she seem to be in groups of her peers? How able is she to stand up for herself with her friends? Does she integrate easily with new children?

All of these questions help to identify if she has the social skills necessary to cope with the cut and thrust of primary school. Socially confident and outgoing children, typically, have little problem settling into the social pressure of school at her age. If she is a little more shy, hesitant or unsure socially, then waiting till she is older may be a good thing.

Don't forget, if she has the skills to make friends then she can make friends, no matter if current friends are with her or not. So, if she is socially capable, then it may not matter that she has no immediate circle of friends to start with, should she wait till next year.

Emotionally, the considerations are primarily about your child's ability to cope with her own strong feelings. So, does your child get anxious or stressed easily? How does she cope if others around her are stressed? Does she cope with direction, rules and limits, without major tantrums?

Naturally, no child, at age four or five, will be entirely emotionally robust, but having a little bit of emotional resilience makes the settling process easier.

Can your daughter sit, avoiding giddiness and distraction? Is she able to focus and concentrate for periods of time?

It may be hard to judge her academic readiness, in terms of the formal learning element, unless she has been in a preschool or Montessori.

If she has, then it is a good idea to get the opinion of her preschool teacher about her. In fact, her teacher may be able to give you a good, independent, opinion about your daughter's readiness across all of the areas above.

The other factor to consider is the dynamic, and age ranges, of the children going into the school this September. If it is possible, go and meet her potential teacher to see if it is going to be a big or small class, populated by mostly five-year-olds, mostly four-year-olds, or a mix.

Knowing that your daughter will have peers that are at the same age and developmental stage may make the decision easier. Similarly, if you know your daughter will always be "young" in the class, that might be the deciding factor.

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