Thursday, February 18, 2016

When should my child start school?

In The Land of Triple Degree Summers, one if the biggest issue for expectant parents is how to keep the mamma-to-be as cool as possible.  Being pregnant in 115 degree temperatures is not pleasant. For those whose children have summer births, concerns over temperatures morph into concerns about when to start school. Most schools accept children who are age 5-6 for kindergarden, some will accept children at age 4 as long as they have a late summer or early fall birthday.  This presents the school with a situation where a kindergarden class can have children who range in age from older 4s to younger or middle 6s.

To start or not to start... That is the question...
Private schools (and maybe public too although I don't know about them) seem to be going through a trend of suggesting that kids delay starting school. Sometimes it has less to do with individual readiness, but more to do with the schools test-scores and performance.  Schools want older kids. They want children who will perform well. They want kids who will sit in their seats better, follow directions better, listen more attentively - basically kids who are older.

The problem comes in when these older children are seated next to younger ones. You can have kids who differ in age by as much as two years seated side by side.  And there is a huge difference between a 4 year old and a 6 year old!

Like with most big parenting decisions, the choice to start or not to start is one that should be made after considerable thought. There is actual research on this subject too. The opinions and experiences of others is invaluable, but other peoples opinions are person specific and biased, so I figured I would share some of the actual research here. 

First off, boys and girl are different (shock, gasp, I said it) 
and so my advice is tailored to gender.   

Boys who are on the cusp (late summer/fall birthday) and just turned 5, will generally do better if they wait a year to start. Boys tend to be less socially mature, have a harder time sitting still, have a harder time with the fine motor skills.
Whereas my daughters (3 and 6) will sit for HOURS coloring, my boys had zero interest. I would have loved to have them color. They felt differently.  They had NO INTEREST! Thus when it came time for them to go off to school who do you think had a head start with the coloring?  And they do a lot of coloring in kindergarden!

Even if your young-start boy is big in size, if he is less mature socially (which is common for boys), he is likely to struggle. There is a huge difference socially and physically between a 4 year old and a 5 or 6 year old boy. The younger boys are not seen as 'cute' by their peers. They have a hard time keeping up. They are picked last for games. They often end up playing with the girls rather than with their boys peers. They often have a harder time sitting still in class.  It is tough on them both socially and academically. 

Introduce caveat here - If you have a youngish boy who you feel is READY and cognitively primed for the challenges of kindergarden then start him!  See how he does those first few months and if you need to pull him out midyear because it is a horrible experience then you can always re-start him the next fall.  School can be a great catalyst for cognitive and social growth so if you think he is ready then go with your gut. I am only telling you what the research generally says.

Girls on the other hand often do well to start as a young 5. Young, small, girls are valued socially by their female peers. They are taken care off by their peers. They are coddled even. When the girls play house they are the 'little sister' or the 'baby' or the 'kitty cat'.  They have social roles to play.   

They also tend to fall in the middle of the pack academically.  Some of them may even be at the head of the class because girls fine motor skills are often better. So much of that first year of school if cutting and gluing and coloring in the lines. Drawing the letters and shapes and practicing letter and sound recognition. Academically and socially younger girls do well, not just in the primary grades but through out schooling.

You also need to consider that you are not just talking about kindergarden.  You also need to consider how they will fair in High School or college being a little more or less socially mature. Puberty, dating, driving, going off to college. It all will happen at some point. 

Take a deep breath.  That is far off, but let's just talk the research. 

High-school girls who are older than their class-peers often end up getting involved with older peer groups and boys. They mature faster than their class-peers physically and it shows visibly. This can be uncomfortable.They are the first in their grade to be sexually objectified openly. Yes, this is sad but it may be whey girls who are older than their class-peers also (statistically) tend to get involved in more risk-taking behaviors. Statistically they hang out with kids who are older (maybe because their peers seem immature) and they try to impress the older kids with their willingness to try things (drugs, drinking, sexual behavior). They assume that this is just what the bigger kids do. Girls who are younger and less mature, statistically just don't get caught up in as much of the risky behavior. 

Boys fair better both in elementary and in high school when they start late. Then tend to be physically larger, stronger, and looked up too by others.  Socially and emotionally they are more mature than their male peers, and are closer to their female peers in maturity.  They are less likely to be picked on. 

If you are panicking right now because this fall you have a late starting 6 year old girl or a early starting 4/5 year old boy - don't panic!  Every child is different and every situation is different. Some schools tend to have older classes as the school discourages early starts. 

But if your child is on one end or the other, 
be willing to re-evaluate as the year goes on. 

Be careful to evaluate and re-evaluate both the cognitive and the social/emotional behavior.

We are cognitively primed to learn certain things at certain times.  No amount of teaching will get a 9 month old to speak in complete sentences or a 2-year old to read.  Our brains develop at generally the same rate. Our brains also love to be challenged.  It is through the challenges that we grow and learn. This occurs for social/emotional development and cognitive development too. Just because you child doesn't have a skill now, that doesn't mean that keeping them from starting school will help them develop that school.  It could be that starting school is precisely what they need to help order them cognitively and start to really grow in that area. 

Kids don't develop in all areas at an equal rate and that is okay. For instance, let's take the child who is socially immature but academically solid. Kindergarden will already be easier for academically inclined kids and we want kids to develop good study skills and good work habits. When school is always 'easy' for them, they have a tendency to be bored, get in trouble, and the social issues mount. Giving them a structured place to grown in maturity surrounded by peers who have similar expectations upon them, and being in a place where they can flourish academically will help boost their social maturation.

Worst case scenario - you make the 'wrong choice'...

If your older 6 year-old-girl is clearly out performing everyone in her class and socially running the class, maybe you can talk to the teacher about moving her up to 1st grade. If your little guy is struggling with good-byes, having a hard time making friends, and getting in trouble, consider pulling him out and having him start next year instead.  

A few years ago I counseled a friend NOT to start her 4 year old boy in Kindergarden.  They decided that since he was so big physically, and he was really smart, that they would start him anyway. I gave her the warning signs and suggested she just keep her eyes open.  This little 4 year old was set up to fail in a traditionally style classroom, with classmates who were in some cases two years ahead of him in age! Sure enough this observant mom pulled her son out after a few months and they waited another year.  His second go-round (starting when he was 5) was totally different. Just one year makes a HUGE difference! He was confident and calmer, he made friends and stayed out of trouble.  

If you are reading this then it means you are taking your responsibility as parent seriously and you recognize the importance of this decision.  

This post is designed to just give you additional information, some research, and some things to think and pray about.  The decision regarding when you should start school is yours to make.  Be thoughtful, be prayerful, and be intentional.  Be humble and make adjustments when needed and I am sure it will all turn out beautifully!

Thanks for stopping by to think with me!

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