What is the right age to send your child to school?

When deciding the right age at which to send your child to school, older rather than younger may be the best option, says Jen Hogan.

LEGALLY, in Ireland, children are required to begin their formal education by the age of six. Most children, however, start school aged four or five.

Knowing if your child is ready to start school in September can be particularly difficult for parents whose children’s birthdays fall after Christmas. 

Worrying about whether your child is too young to start, or whether they’ll be bored if you wait an additional year, are common concerns.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. My first child started school less than three months after her fourth birthday. She was tall, mature, confident, and capable and she settled into school very well.

She had no difficulties throughout and her teachers often commented that it was hard to believe she was the youngest in her class. 

Do I regret my decision? Absolutely.

She has had to grow up faster than I’d have liked and while at the time I could not visualise my little four-year-old as a teenager, sure enough the day came and all the peer pressure and challenges associated with secondary school came to her way sooner than I felt they should have.

I became the mum who seemed to say “no” to everything because she was too young — younger than her peers.

Jen Hogan with her children Chloe, 15, Adam, 12, Jamie, 10, Luke, 7, Zach, 5, Tobey, 3, and Noah, 1. Jen does not regret delaying the start of school days. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

My third child was already five when he started school. He has a different personality to his sister but the driving force in my case was his peer age group. 

There seems to have been a move towards a later starting age at my children’s school and I factored that in. Do I regret waiting an extra year? Not a bit.

But is it as simple as mere age when it comes to deciding if your child is ready for school? 

Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist at Solamh, thinks there are several factors to consider.

“If your child is close to the age of five and showing signs that they are appropriately independent and capable of doing basic tasks for themselves, they are showing signs of being ready,” Joanna explains. 

She warns, however, against parents’ belief that their Montessori-going child necessarily requires the stimulation of school, adding that “stimulation can be drawn from more unstructured play-based activities and opportunity to explore their environment creatively”.

“If your child is younger, more sensitive and timid, and has difficulty separating from you, they may benefit from an additional year to help them prepare for school.”

Joanna says it is important not to force a child to be ready “if they are simply not”, but for those who are, there are a few practical things you can do ahead of time.

“Drive by the school regularly, pointing it out excitedly. Be super positive about it.

“Involve your child in the preparatory process by making a list of things they need and bring them with you to choose some of these items, so it is happening with them and not to them.”

Availing of introduction days when a child can meet the teacher/principal and walk around “helps to visually orientate them to a new environment”.

Sending a child to school before they’re ready will become evident very quickly, Joanna believes. 

It may manifest itself as fretfulness at the point of separation, or display as a behavioural or developmental regression.

“Some children will do OK in the early years but by the age of seven you will see clear developmental differences emerge between your child and their peers who are more mature and emotionally developing faster.”

Joanna sees no disadvantage in sending a child to school later, except that it may result in the child finding the curriculum “under-stimulating”, but “this added maturity can stand to them as they progress through school levels and are better equipped to deal with challenges and peer pressures later on”.

Helen Kelly, principal at Holly Park Boys’ School in Blackrock, Co Dublin, says indications of a child’s readiness for school include “a level of independence and an ability to do things for himself — to dress himself, for example, and to do simple jobs”. 

The child should “not get upset easily and separate well from his mum”.

“How the child is in pre-school with his peers” can tell a lot, says Helen, as can “ability to follow instruction without having to repeat”.

Whether they are ready for school at four or five depends on the child, Helen explains. 

“Often the child’s position in the family is a factor.” 

Parents of children who turn four in May or June “may need to consider carefully if their child is better off starting at four or waiting until he turns five”.

Problems encountered by those who start school before they are ready include “difficulties paying attention and following instructions from the teacher”. 

They “can appear babyish and be perceived as such by their peers. They can find it hard to play in the schoolyard with their peers, and cry easily,” she adds.

“It’s time lost for them.”

Check for signs of a child’s independence

When starting school, children should be able to:

  • Put on and take off coat
  • Use the toilet and wash hands
  • Use a tissue/handkerchief
  • Tidy up after activities
  • Open/close lunchbox and beaker
  • Put belongings in/out of schoolbag independently


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