Choosing a school is one of the biggest decisions parents make for their children in their formative years. Coupled with this decision is parents’ understanding their children’s readiness for the challenges and rigour of primary school. In recent years more and more parents have been asking me, as an experienced primary school principal, Is their child ready for school? And what can we (as parents) do to prepare our children for school?
So it begs the question – “How does a family, parents or teachers or early childhood educators, decide, influence, recommend, recognise if a child is ready for the challenges of a prep or primary school classroom?” Across Australia we have various names for the first formal year of school, Kindergarten and Preparatory (or Prep) are the most common names. We also have different starting ages for children eligible to start school. As educators across the country accommodate these differences (and work with a population that is quite transient), the questions remains the same “Is my child ready for school and how do I know if they’re ready for school?” Let’s address four areas that I believe children need to be reasonably skilled at so that they can face the rigors and challenges of a primary school classroom.
There are areas around 1. Speech and Language; 2. Fine and Gross motor skills; 3. Independent skills; and 4. Social and Emotional skills. Keeping in mind the goal of education is to have children be confident contributors to society as young adolescents. Therefore the goal of early childhood education would be to give them the foundational skills whereby they can develop their social and emotional, academic and physical well-being as they face the challenges of primary school, upper primary School, junior high school and then high school.
Now it’s important that parents understand they have a critical and key role to play in the development of those four skill areas, so that their children can attend to learning when they go to school. It also means that the early childhood teachers in a kindergarten or a prep classroom can spend their time teaching the curriculum without having to worry about some of the skills that, ideally a child will have when they come to school. Let me share with you some of the basic skills that children are coming to school with less confidence than teachers would like. The speech and language development of children appears to be in decline, with the percentage of children coming to school with speech difficulties, increasing. The physical strength of children seems to be declining; as do their independent skills.
Gross motor skills are the large body movements where their major limbs are used for movement and posture. These skills are the basis for fine motor development, both of which are foundational to a child’s physical development, and important for children’s ability to attend to learning. Both at and beyond school. Parents may need to reflect if their child walk, jog, run competently? Can they navigate through a playground? Can they navigate through a room full of furniture, without bumping into things, without falling over? Can they sit for a period of time without slouching or lying down because their body is tired because they don’t have core strength? If a child doesn’t have good gross motor skills, then they’re fine motor skills may take longer to develop. Can your child walk up and down a set of stairs competently? These skills describe very basic life skills and they are critical to a child’s development and critical for the child’s ability to attend to learning.
For children there are numerous fine motor skills where they use their hands and fingers, which are necessary for their ability to attend to learning. For example, can a child dress themselves confidently, can they manage buttons and zips and shoelaces? Of course, if they can’t, then they’re going to be asking the teacher to assist them at school which takes awake core teaching time. Ask yourself can your child open up their own lunchbox, can they write their own name or can they hold a pencil correctly and colour reasonably accurately? Can they use a pair of scissors reasonably confidently? This is key so that when they come to school they can pick up a pencil or a pen the correct way. They may be able to hold the paintbrush the right way and use it reasonably confidently. Of course, if they can’t open up a lunchbox, tie their shoelaces, use scissors properly, use a glue stick properly then the teachers will teach them – but this takes away from core teaching time.
Some of these skills are examples of the independence skills that children should have in preparation for them to come to school. Having these independence skills gives the students confidence in their ability to navigate their world without relying on their parents. Such self-management is important as students are building resilience and self-reliance, knowing they can “look after themselves” at an age-appropriate level.
Ask yourself does your child have the ability to interact socially with a variety of other children and adults? Have they been exposed to mixing in social environments whereby they have to take turns, they have to share, they have to wait, they might have to line up. These are social skills that the child should have when they come to school. If they don’t have these social skills then again they may struggle in a very social world which is a kindergarten or a prep classroom.
Let’s talk about speech and language. Speech and language have at least two key components that the child must have a degree of mastery around at their appropriate developmental level when they come to school. Firstly, their expressive language – can they speak reasonably clearly and articulate reasonably clearly so that they can express their messages while talking to peers and adults? Now it’s not uncommon for children to have minor speech difficulties when they start primary school. Research would suggest children don’t have to have all the letters and sounds until the age of 7 which is 1 or 2 years into their primary school journey. However if the child’s speech is very difficult to understand the age of 4 or 5 when they start school, then the teacher or a member of leadership may tell the parents that their child’s speech development seems to be somewhat struggling, therefore we recommend some further investigation that may result in speech therapy intervention. May I stress that if a parent is advised to go and get some intervention we’re doing it for the wellbeing of the child. We are not doing it to make your life difficult. We are doing a because we care about your child’s development and our experience would recommend and the child needs some further intervention beyond what a primary school can provide.
Common sounds and letters that are last to develop include the ‘th’ sound for “the”, ‘thumb’, “three” and “Thursday’ and ‘thick’ and ‘thimble’. It is often replace with the f sound – fumb and Fursday and fick and free. So if that happens then it’s very simple for the parents to monitor that closely and get the child to stick their tongue out when they say the th sound and if you do that as an adult then you understand very clearly it is simple to teach your child how to say th. Another common misrepresentation of a sound or a substitution of a sound is the letter L for the letter Y. So the colour yellow may be pronounced as lellow. Then parents may ask themselves – how do I correct that? Very simply asked a child can they say yes? Can they say yet? Can they say yep? can they say yell and then can I say yell-ow. You may be find of humorous to believe that the child may go yet yes yet yell and then go lellow. It is not as easy to correct because it’s more difficult to see the position of your tongue when you correct that sound substitution.
The second part of a language development is the receptive language. This means can your child understand and comprehend the spoken word or written word that they are engaging with at a particular point in time. So, when a peer tells stories with them and engages them in play, can they understand what’s being asked of them? Or if an adult engages with them and gives them instruction (it might be a multiple-step instruction) can the child understand and follow through the instructions? This is their receptive language.
So, what can parents do to develop a child’s skillset? Let me run through some basics and in your own mind can check off your child’s skill set. (Remember we are not expecting mastery – just a developmentally appropriate level of ability). Firstly, parents and children MUST engage with books and stories and engage with the written and spoken word. Obviously, that’s part of speech and language development and his key to a child development. Get the child outdoors running around exercising, climbing on frames, going to the park, experiencing the world in a physical sense. Get them writing (imaginative writing is developmentally appropriate), get them colouring and get them using scissors; get them manipulating pegs, get them building with blocks. These are all fine and gross motor skills. Get the children in a social environment so (if they’re not at daycare centre or an early childhood setting, get them in one of those settings) they can get used to working with their peers and get used to waiting, taking turns, sharing. These are all critical experiences for the children, and skills they should have before they come to school.
Get them to be independent and have them brush their teeth, have them have a routine of getting up, getting dressed, making their bed, and doing very basic simple things that give them independence. We want our children to be confident so they can have success at school. We want them to be resilient so that if they make a mistake they can in fact pick up the pieces and have another go. (The word FAIL should never be used to a child unless you use it as an acronym: this is your First Attempt In Learning, not fail, you got it wrong and you are never going to get it right. That’s a key tip for parents when we use language in and around our children.)
Let me restate the four key areas that parents can help get their child ready for school: 1. Speech and language development. 2. Gross and Fine motor skills. 3. Independent Skills. 4. Social Skills. If you have your child reasonably confident in these areas, with a degree of competency, that suits their age-appropriate developmental level, then they will be able to attend to school with a degree of confidence. This also means that the teachers can there spend their time teaching the curriculum. This means we’re going to have a culture of collaboration with parents playing their part, teachers playing their part. We trust each other to do their part right which fosters a great culture between parents and school staff and our children will be the beneficiaries.