Starting school young: Reasons you’ll want to wait a year

As 2016 continues to race by, across the country there is a group of parents with a big decision to make: Should they send their child to school next year or keep them home for another year? With schools now actively looking to confirm enrolments for 2017, it is crunch time for families with children at the lower end of the age range for starting school.

Australia-wide, all children must be enrolled at school by their sixth birthday. But with minimum age cut-offs varying from state to state, it is surprising how wide the variation in one kindergarten class can be between the oldest and youngest child. In NSW, where the minimum age cut-off requires a child to turn five before 31 July, it is quite possible to have children 18 months apart in the same class.

Being a July baby myself, I know what it means to be in a class with much older children for your whole school career. I was born at a time when it was the norm to start children at school in the year that they were eligible – the angst-ridden ‘should we hold her back’ conversation just didn’t happen. If you turned five that year, you went to school. And so it was that I found myself in a teeny tiny school uniform aged four and a half.

I was one of the young ones

School is a big, scary place when you are the smallest human on campus, and for most of the first two years, I was confused about pretty much everything, the big and small stuff:  I couldn’t work out the rules in the classroom as well as in the playground; how to play a good social game; or what was acceptable in the lunch box – turns out bananas were the enemy of all that was good and decent in the world!

First day of school

First day of school for the author. Looking a little tense …

When I asked my mother many later, why she sent me to school so young – my birthday fell mere days before the cut-off – she told me that I was so keen to go to school; I was so ready that there was no question about keeping me back.

And I do have memories of playing Schools at home, complete with homework, long before I actually got there, so maybe I am partly to blame for my early entry. I was a keen bean but the reality of school was something completely different. The truth is that I wasn’t emotionally ready for it, and I continued to struggle with this all the way through school because I was always surrounded by peers who were older than me. My best friend through high school was a full year older than me and she just got it. She knew how the world operated and for the most part, I was her clueless friend.

Yes, of course, some children really ARE ready to go to school when they’re on the younger end of the range, but mostly, spending an extra year out of school is only going to do good things for them in the long run. So if you’re undecided, consider the following before making your decision:

1. Have you spoken to your child’s preschool teachers about school-readiness?

No doubt, if they have specific concerns, they will have already approached you, but generally after two years of a preschool program, they’ll green light the transition to school. At this stage, the smartest question you can ask is whether your child is socially and emotionally ready for school. The academic stuff can come later.

2. Don’t think that repeating your child in the early years of school will be an easy fix

Of course, there are no guarantees in life and no one can know how well a child will cope at school, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that having your child repeat a year of school will be the solution to any and all problems. Repeating a grade, any grade, is a big thing – even if your child is still in the first years of school. Their friends move on and they stay behind. They have to form new bonds. And they have to experience struggle and failure before they can repeat.

3. What about national benchmarking exams?

NAPLAN tests are done by year grade not age so by sending your child to school one year earlier than they might go, they will do all these national benchmarking tests one year earlier than they need to. As a very wise teacher-friend of mine once said, “School is a marathon not a sprint. So it will always be in any child’s best interest to have that extra time to mature and prepare.”

4. What about the high school years?

Often the younger children in the classroom sail along just fine until they hit high school, when everything steps up a gear. Kids who are struggling emotionally can begin to struggle socially, and if they are experiencing friendship problems, their focus will inevitably shift from their academic studies to the extra-curricular stuff to keep up with their peers. The high school years – and all the inevitable drama that comes with – is hard enough. Does your child need to be less equipped than their peers to meet it?

5. The size of the child should not dictate entry to school

How many boys have started school before they need to because they are tall for their age? If you have a string bean of a boy who is towering over all his peers at preschool and are wondering just how insanely tall he will be in one year’s time, forget about it. Boys who are big for their age still have little boy’s emotional needs. So what if he is the tallest boy in the class? There are some things you have no control over – size being one! – and once he does start at school, it will just be part of who he is.