Saturday 20 April 2019

Dear David Coleman: Should I send my son to school aged four or five?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the ideal age to start a child in primary school? My son has a February birthday so we are debating whether to start him in primary school this September when he'll be just four-and-a-half or delay it by a year and send him at five-and-a-half. We do have him enrolled in our local school and they are really keen for him to start, but I think that might be so that they can keep their numbers up, or risk losing a teacher. Any advice you might have would be much appreciated.

David replies: I am not sure that there is an ideal age to start children in primary school. If you look across different cultures and countries, there is a wide range of ages at which children will start formal education. In some Scandinavian countries, for example, children are seven starting school, having been in a play-based pre-school system up to then.

My own rule of thumb, based both on experience with my own children and an understanding of children's developmental needs, is that the older a child can be starting primary school the better (although in Ireland your child must be enrolled to start school before the age of six).

However, I also know that general guidelines and general perspectives can't always be applied to individual children, since there is such a breadth of relative maturity even amongst exactly the same age children.

I'd definitely counsel you against basing your decision on the apparent needs of the school. While ultimately the numbers of teachers in the school will have an impact on your own child's experience in school, I don't think it should be your main consideration.

Rather, you need to make your decision based on the developmental readiness of your son. Developmental readiness can be considered under a range of headings, but the four main areas to consider are his social, emotional, behavioural and academic readiness. If he has done a preschool year (or two), then you can also check in with his preschool teacher about her sense of how ready he might be in these areas.

In terms of academic readiness, you will probably have an idea of how much he enjoys being read to, how able he is for things like shape sorting, puzzles, following the rules of simple games and other tasks that engage his thinking skills.

Behavioural readiness is probably more important for boys than girls, as it is more common for boys to get mislabelled as "problematic" because they are giddy, energetic, wilful and active. In truth, all children his age are still exploring their world physically rather than cognitively, but boys do seem to have a "wild" phase around age four.

They learn mostly by observing and doing, rather than receiving verbal instruction. So, their natural inclination will be to be up and about, moving, touching, climbing, experimenting and so on. You need to judge whether you think he might be able to sit for extended periods and whether he can do things independently (like working on a task, or even his toileting, as examples).

Emotional readiness will tap into things like his ability to regulate his own emotions to any great extent. Does he, for example, get really upset, angry or disappointed, to the extent that he can't seem to control himself at all and needs lots of external soothing and comforting? While no four-year-old will be able to regulate themselves entirely, it will definitely help if he shows some capacity to either soothe himself or allow himself to be easily soothed.

In the same vein, you will also want to consider how anxious he may be in the new environment of school and how he will cope with longer separation from you, or the move into the after-school group if he is in childcare.

Then the final area to consider is his social readiness. This is about his ability to mix with his peers and to integrate with them in a pro-social way. Again you may have strong indications of how he will cope in this area from his pre-school or childcare experiences if he has been in crèche.

So, while there is no hard and fast rule, you can apply these readiness indicators to your son and it may help you find some clarity about whether to let him off this autumn, or wait another year.

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