School Readiness – considerations for starting primary school

By Patrick Hynes,  Senior Occupational Therapist who provides clinical supervision at Sensational Kids & part-time lecturer in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at University College Cork.

Starting school is an exciting stage in any child or parent’s life. There is excitement and anticipation merged sometimes with stress and fear as to what it will all entail. The transition from pre-school and/or home to primary school is a significant one. Nowadays, many children attend some form of pre-school prior to enrolling in primary school. Class numbers jump significantly from pre-school to primary school, and pupil-teacher ratios differ depending on where the child is enrolled.

Debate exists around as to when children are developmentally ready to commence primary school. School readiness is determined by much more than a child’s chronological age. In order to make a successful and happy start in primary school, children need to have a firm grasp of language, motor coordination, social and emotional skills, independence skills, cognitive skills and orientation skills. While these skills do not develop overnight, it is important to determine where your child’s skills lie in these areas when considering starting primary school. Age appropriate competence in these areas will help determine how successful starting school will be. School readiness is a multi-dimensional concept which reflects the holistic nature of children’s development and takes account of a host of factors in their wider environment.

In fact, some research suggests that one of the best indicators of success for children starting primary school is not whether they have the necessary motor and cognitive skills but whether they have the necessary social and emotional skills. Research consistently highlights the importance of the environment in a child’s early development and consequently success in school. In essence, parents have a vital role to play in helping their child become school ready.

Some of the social/emotional skills that are required for children starting primary school include being able to separate from their parents without distress; complying with requests and ceasing activity when requested; being able to manage frustration and tantrums; waiting patiently for several minutes for adult attention; asking for and accepting help if necessary; playing with other children; sharing toys with friends and turn-taking in games. Many of these skills can be developed through play at home, and can be modelled by parents and older children.

Some of the independence skills to consider for children starting school include whether they are able to take off their coat and put it on without difficulty and are they able to put their shoes on? Are they able to go to the toilet independently and wash their hands afterwards? Are they able to unwrap their lunch and eat it independently and use a spoon or a fork to feed themselves? Are they able to open their drink container? Other independent skills could include are they able to recognise their belongings amongst others (e.g. recognise their coat) or are they able to blow and wipe their nose independently? Again, it is important to develop these skills at home and afford your child the opportunity to practice and achieve success with these skills.

By the time they start school, children should be able to understand adults’ and other children’s verbal communication and also verbally communicate experiences, ideas, wishes, and feelings in a way that can be understood by others. Communication skills that are necessary for children starting primary school include being able to talk reciprocally with peers and take part in conversations; being able to listen attentively and answer questions in a group situation; being able to speak without shouting or whispering; being able to describe recent experiences and retell a simple story; being able to recite rhymes and sing songs; being able to understand requests and seek clarification. Research suggests that the ability to communicate effectively with teachers and peers rather than the actual developmental level of language, is considered more important for school readiness. At home exposing children to a language rich environment where reading is an integral part of daily life is important.

In terms of motor skills and physical ability, skills to observe include can your child isolate fingers (e.g. to point)? Can they pick up and manipulate small items? Can they hold a pencil in an appropriate grip? Can they kick a ball? Can they throw and catch a ball with a partner? Can they jump? Can they sit onto a chair without missing it? Can they pull themselves and the chair into the correct position at a desk? Can they gauge how much force they need to push open a door or close it? Can they manage changes in the environment independently (e.g. go up and down stairs, obstacles, uneven ground etc.) Many of those skills are developed during play and a great place for families to develop these skills is in the playground and outdoors.
In terms of orientation skills, can they move about confidently at preschool? Can they move with a line of children at routine times and can they queue? Understand the need for safety e.g. roads, heights etc. is important as is having an understanding of spatial concepts e.g. up/down, next to, left/right.

To conclude, starting formal primary school education can be a stressful time for children. They face many new challenges such as being expected to be independent and act responsibly. They must interact with teachers, meet certain academic achievements, and face large class sizes. Children who do not make effective transitions to formal education may be less successful in school. Each dimension of school readiness can have consequences for a child’s social, physical and educational outcomes. Successful transition and adjustment to school life is critical for a child’s future success. To ease this transition a child needs to arrive equipped with the necessary skills for school.

If you have concerns for your child’s development or questions about his / her school readiness, seek professional advice from your child’s preschool or your family GP or a paediatric occupational therapist or a speech and language therapist or a child psychologist. School readiness is important!

Remember, have fun with your child developing the skills necessary for starting school.

Copyright Sensational Kids CLG 2018