The importance of social skills
For a lot of families, it is their child’s less developed social skills that can be the biggest barrier to a successful start at school.
"You see kids at school who struggle from the beginning," Professor Oberklaid says.
Regardless, he believes the first school year is not the time for parents to have high expectations of their children's achievements. Instead, it's a year for consolidating what they have learned in a preschool environment.
“Teachers will say that they can see the kids who have been to preschool [known as kindy in some parts of Australia] and those who haven’t. My advice to all parents is to make sure that their child has a preschool experience, as it helps them so much with things like turn taking and social skills,” Professor Oberklaid says.
Listening to the voice of experience
Of course, as with any big change in a child's life, the start of school can sometimes bring unwanted side effects. Professor Oberklaid doesn’t believe most new school kids experience significantly regressive behaviours, but says there’s always variability between children.
“You do see some kids who are tired and irritable when they get home. Parents should expect it, but just be flexible and understand that it might happen. Kids will adjust," he says.
If things aren’t coming together during that first year, or if a preschool teacher suggests that a child isn't ready for that next step, Professor Oberklaid believes parents should take that advice seriously.
"There are some parents who are reluctant to admit their child is not ready, and a small number who believe that delaying the children's start in school is a personal slight, or loss of esteem to their own parenting," he says.
“I think the best advice is to rely on the opinion of an experienced kindy teacher. All the tests in the world won't help figure this out; at the end of the day it’s better to go on a mix of advice from the teacher and the parent’s own gut feeling," Professor Oberklaid says.
He believes that starting school later, or even repeating that first year if it’s been tough going, is sometimes a smart move.
“Some schools have a policy of never keeping children down. My view is that if there is any uncertainty I prefer them to start school a year later when they are socially more confident and have more skills. The early years are the best time to do that,” Professor Oberklaid says.
What you want to avoid, Professor Oberklaid says, is wavering on the decision and realising down the track that you’ll need to keep the child back at a later stage of their schooling.
“Repeating a year later in school is a whole different ballgame to repeating kindy or prep. It is much harder on social skills to do it later,” he says.up kids,” Professor Oberklaid says.