As one of life’s big transitions, starting school can be an exciting and sometimes challenging time.
Being socially and emotionally ready for school is particularly important, because children who feel safe and secure will be ready to learn and make the most of their school experience.
But when it comes to the more physically focused skills like writing their names, tying their shoelaces, opening their lunchboxes or holding a pencil - how essential are these skills for our children and will it help if they have mastered them before they start school?
Dr Cathy McBryde is a lecturer in Occupational Therapy at the University of Queensland’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. Her PhD focused on the factors that influenced decision making when parents considered school readiness. She has also focused on the transition to school with many clients in her private practice.
School readiness difficult to define
Dr McBryde says, with such a large range of ages in the first year of school, it is impossible to have a check list of developmental skills needed by children to start school.
“Potentially at the beginning of a school year in January you can have a child who’s four and a half and you could also have a child who is six and a half, so that is a really broad range of different development and skill levels,” she says.
“Because there is often such a massive variation in normal development it really is impossible for every child in the first year of school to present with the same skills, which is why a school readiness checklist can be fraught.
“Because we can’t define what school readiness is, it is really hard to assess it, so the practical skills required by the child transitioning to school are really those skills that have been deemed important by the particular school the child will be attending.”
Instead of focussing on “school readiness” as a concept, Dr McBryde suggests parents focus on preparing their children for their continued education by having a conversation with the school about how to make this transition as easy as possible.
She suggests sharing as much information as possible about your child and learning as much as you can about the school’s expectations, learning philosophies and teaching programs.
When you are thinking about your child’s developmental skills, rather than view them as a predictor for whether or not your child is ready for, or will succeed in school, it is important to talk to their early learning teachers.
Because parents and teachers observe their children in such different environments their perceptions about each child and their predictions about how they will adjust to school can be so different.
“My research indicated that early childhood teacher’s perceptions of readiness were highly predictive of teacher perceptions of how children ended up coping in the school environment,” Dr McBryde says.
Ensure children feel loved and safe
In terms of arming your children with skills they need to start school, Dr McBryde says it was just as important to spend time with them and ensure they feel loved and safe.
“Being really present when you’re spending time together. Putting away the phone and all of those distractions we have now and enjoying that one-on-one time, is so important,” she says.
“It really helps to support children’s own social engagement when they know their parents enjoy spending that one-on-one time with them and this can lead to good self-regulation and social skills,” she says.