The Precious Gift of Time: When is the best age for children to start school?

By kfg_admin

It remains a great debate amongst professionals and parents on determining the optimal age for children to enter into school.

There is a growing trend amongst informed parents in delaying school entry.  A study of more than 100,000 children, published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, found that one in four families delay school entry until their child turns 6.

This is contrary to the ‘earlier is better’ approach who support an early school starting age under the belief that children can get a head start in learning.  However, whilst there maybe an initial educational benefit for children starting school early, this is not sustained in the long-term into later childhood.

Indeed, children who start ‘early’ rather than ‘late’ often experience the full potential adverse effects, as in recent years many schools have introduced more formal modes of instruction into classrooms which young children which they are not suited to.

The first six years in a child’s life are critical.  There is abundance of international evidence to confirm that strong foundations are laid in the early years of life, which can have a permanent and detrimental impact on children’s longer-term development if not done correctly.  A child’s future wellbeing, attainment, happiness and choices are profoundly affected by the quality of the guidance, care and opportunities they receive during these formative years.

A study published by Hans Henrik Sievertsen from the Danish National Center for Social Research showed improved self-regulation in children whose entry had been delayed to the 6 or 7 years of age.  Interestingly, these improvements persisted into later childhood up to the age 11.

The study found strong evidence that delaying school by a year provides mental health benefits to children, allowing them to better self-regulate their attention and hyperactivity levels when they do start school.

Stanford Graduate School of Education Prof. Thomas Dee, who co-authored the study with Hans Henrik Sievertsen, also noted:

“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an ‘abnormal,’ or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavioural measure”.

Longitudinal studies are also supporting a later school start age.  Dr Lionel Page from the University of Technology, Sydney, found that children who remain in early years settings and start school later at 6 or 7 years of age are at a huge advantage and one that follows them throughout their lives.  The study looked at 1,007 adults between the ages of 24 and 60 and found that those who had started school later were more resilient, competitive and trusting and far more self-confident than those who had started earlier.

All of these findings align with what many developmental psychologists emphasise about child development: that young children benefit from extended exposure to well-resourced early years environments, guided by skilled educators, in smaller group sizes and offered an inquiry-play based curriculum rather than an instruction-based, standardised and systemised environment.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries educationalists such as Steiner, Montessori Piaget & Vygotsky and the Reggio Emilia Approach developed educational programmes based on observations of intellectual development.  They provided scientific evidence that the first seven years of a child’s cognitive development is qualitatively different from later stages which has continued to be confirmed by ongoing research in the fields of education and cognitive brain development

Young children are not suited to formal school environments – it is not how the brain and body grows and learns at this age of development.  A quality early years setting with a rich environment planned for early childhood along with an enriching curriculum dramatically improves self-regulation, and supports later transitions into schooling systems.

A study by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of children whose parents sent them to academic preschools versus early years settings that emphasize learning through inquiry, play and discovery, found that children in academic preschools had no short-term, or long-term academic advantages.  By the time they reached first grade, the research could not distinguish between the intellectual skills of the children who had academic lessons and those who had none.

However, there was an important difference; the children who had had the academic environment were more anxious and less creative than the children of the other group.

In conclusion, the strong age-development relationship observed in children in their first 6 years year of life suggests that each month of maturation counts during this important period, as children continue to develop physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively.

Children who start school in the year they turn 6 or 7 are more likely to have developed the skills and competencies needed to thrive in a formal learning environment, compared with their younger peers who start school early.

Parents delaying the school start age are buying the ‘gift of time’ for their children.  By choosing an enabling and interactive learning environment, supported by passionate educators, to allow for more personalised learning, means they are more ‘school ready’ and likely to flourish once they enter the education system.

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