Starting 'big school'

Ready, steady,go…

Starting ‘big school’ is a big deal – and so is the timing says Marilena Deroukakis

Jessica was not an ordinary 6-year-old girl. While other children were building castles in the sandpit, she was spelling out three-letter words, making rhymes and doing sums. She could hold her pencil with a tripod grip, was able to tie her own shoelaces and hop on one leg. Although she had friends, she would burst into tears when things didn’t go her way and was known as the ‘blurter’, who would answer the question before the teacher had finished asking it.

Jessica’s parents wanted to send her to school, but they weren’t sure if she should spend an extra year in preschool to mature. Many parents, just like Jessica’s, deliberate over holding their children back or sending them early to the structured world of big school. Officially, children should start school the year that they turn 7, but for those born at the extremes of the year, they may spend a fair amount of Grade 1 as the ‘little’ 6-year-olds or as the ‘older’ of the 7-year-olds.

Understandably, many parents feel that the legal date is arbitrary, and that each child should be judged according to their level of readiness.
The early birds vs. the late bloomers

Some parents feel that children who are sent to school early are not only more intelligent, but will also always be fortunate enough to have the advantage of being a year ahead of their peers. The extra year translates into a 12-month gain at high school, a 365-day advantage in university, and the 8 760 hours of extra work experience. However, in between the rush from childhood to retirement, some children may feel ‘left out’ among their older, more mature peers, especially during their teens.

Then there are the parents in favour of keeping their children back. For them, sending their child to school prematurely would mean forcing them into the more ‘grown-up’ world of homework, extramural activities and rules, without the child being ready. Unrealistic expectations could be made of the child, simply because they are now in big school and should act in a certain way. This may lead to a negative school experience, with longer-term repercussions, such as dents to their confidence.

What is certain is that many parents will base the readiness decision on their own childhood experience of starting big school. Those that feel they were pushed into a phase that they were not ready for, are likely to encourage their children to be children for one more year; while those who remember being ahead of the class may see a younger version of themselves and spur their little ones on.

Children may be school-ready when they:
- Have reasonable control over their behaviour and emotions
- Can cope when minor things go wrong
- Can talk confidently to adults, ask for help and express their feelings
- Can entertain themselves
- Can make things for themselves
- Can tackle new or challenging asks
- Can solve simple problems on their own and stand up for themselves
- Can look after their belongings
- Can respect other children’s toys and games, and also
- Have friends and can make friends.

Ready or not?

The answer to the question ‘Is my child ready for school?’ is not clear-cut, but research has revealed three interesting facts:

1. Age is a not as important as schooling when it comes to developmental progress. Often, the best place to promote school readiness is at school. Evidence suggests that it’s not so significant when the child goes to school, but rather how the child is challenged in the extra year at preschool.

2. Readiness is better understood as a ‘good fit’ between the child and the school. For example, smaller classes, a nurturing approach and adaptable teaching styles go a long way in ensuring that the child, who may be academically ready, but socially immature, ‘catches up’. Schools that offer Grade R (or Reception Year) clearly benefit the child that may not quite be ready for Grade 1. The advantage of Grade R is that children have the familiarity of the environment of preschool, which is balanced by stimulation of the new activities. As Terri Ohannessian, principal of SAHETI’s Pre-Primary School, explains: ‘The children don’t sit at desks or wear uniforms, but they are taught Grade 1 activities, such as letter recognition and writing.’ 3 The gaps in readiness at preschool level may reflect the quality of the previous rung on the educational ladder, namely playschool, where school readiness really begins. Playschools differ in the activities and level of readiness they provide. As Sol Mavrokordatos, who takes children up to the age of 4 at SAHETI’s playschool, comments: ‘Children at this age are very egocentric and we use activities that to teach them life skills such as sharing and waiting their turn.’ The children also have an opportunity to separate from their mothers into a ‘home away from home’ environment.

3. Promoting school readiness at home: It’s not the sole responsibility of the school to provide challenges and stimulation to children. The home environment, as well as activities such as visits to museums, libraries and parks, can go a long way in promoting school readiness. (The higher socio-economic groups tend to have greater access to these activities.) Not that the activities taught in preschools should not be underestimated; gaps in academic ability found in Grade 1 tend to linger throughout the school career, leaving the unstimulated children permanently lagging behind.

Carolyn Reid is passionate about bridging the education gaps. She has started a programme to teach day mothers in Alexandra how to inexpensively create activities that promote school readiness. ‘We teach them basic skills in creative arts, so that they can use these skills in a way that helps the child to explore art techniques in their own way. We also teach them the importance of fantasy play and storytelling, so that the children are given the encouragement and stimulation they require.’ The programme teaches 32 day mothers to prepare over 700 children for school with minimal resources.

In Jessica’s case, she was tested and found to be ready for school, with the recommendation that her parents employ some behavioural tactics for her tantrums. It was the right decision. She sailed through primary and high school and obtained straight A’s. Currently, she is still sailing, but on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. She has decided to take a gap year (or two) before starting university.

{Dr Marilena Deroukakis is a homeopath and neurodevelopmental psychometrist specialising in the treatment of children. She practises from Paediatricks” a holistic clinic for children}