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Getting ready for starting school.

Starting school is a huge step for children and, understandably, one that many parents approach with some trepidation. After all, there is only one chance to make a great first impression, and we all want every child’s first experience of school to be a delightful one, setting them up for a love of learning we hope will be life-long.

What is school readiness?

It may be a relief to many parents researching what skills are necessary for a child to have to make a successful transition to school that the most important skills are not things like knowing how to count objects or how to write their name. These academic skills are taught in school and it’s not necessary for children to already have these skills when they start. So forget the flashcards!

It is more important for their child to have good social skills and to be a confident learner to set the foundations for a lifetime of learning. Social skills, like sharing, taking turns, playing together and waiting for each other are skills that can only be learned through interacting with other children. These skills are developed through your child’s relationship with you, and are then generalised to other people through play-dates and other social interactions.

Taking these skills into a large group of children with fewer adults per child present requires a whole new level of social skills. To participate at school, children need “to be able to get along with other children, cope with stress of new situation and new learning tasks, have healthy assertiveness, ability to play solo and with other children, have pro-social behaviour, and cope with being in a large group with minimal adult contact”, writes early childhood specialist (and personal hero of mine), Maggie Dent.

Self-care skills are essential for successful transition to school as well. Children need to be able to go to the toilet independently in a strange new place, manage their own clothing, and to do things like open their own lunchbox and unwrap their own food. The fine motor skills required for these tasks are far more important than knowing how to hold a pencil, and are precursors for the development of pencil grip that is more developmentally-appropriate at a later age anyway.

The classroom environment places huge demands on the young child’s concentration, attention and emotional regulation. When we think of these as learned skills, rather than inborn attributes, we are able to provide children with opportunities to learn these skills through organic practice during activities that are inherently motivating.

Gross motor skills, such as postural endurance to sit upright for a whole school day, are also very important because they can impact on a child’s ability to engage with classroom activities, and to play with other children at break times.

Why school readiness is important.

Children who are ready for school are more likely to

  • Feel comfortable and relaxed

  • Be motivated to learn

  • Form friendships

  • Feel excited about going to school

  • Develop a sense of belonging to the school and feel valued

This means that children who start school when they are ready are less likely to experience anxiety and stress, and to be happier and healthier. Not only that, it’s important for their academic development that they have these critical skills for success. ”Children who already have these foundation skills prior to entering school advance more quickly, because they are ready for the school environment and are able to build on the skills they already have, rather than begin the process of school readiness”, according to Dockett & Perry (2014).

Fortunately, thanks to the excellent work of a team of people including the very inspiring Maggie Dent (did I mention I am a fan?), there have been recent changes to the regulations determining how children may be exempted from the compulsory school starting age if they are not ready. This is so important because there is huge variation in the development of children which should not be unduly pathologized when they are still so little. So if your child is not ready for school even though they are nearing the starting age, don’t panic, and don’t break out the flashcards. We all develop at different rates and many children who are not ready for school by age 4 or 5 have excellent academic outcomes, because they catch up.

What develops school readiness?

There’s not much point starting jumping lessons early while a frog is still a tadpole. No matter how beautifully a tadpole is taught, no matter how much praise or motivation the tadpole has, it’s not going to become a frog that is the best at jumping by being introduced to jumping before it has legs. It can actually be harmful to introduce academic skills when your child does not yet have the capacity to learn them, because trying to do something that is just too hard is very discouraging.

Here are the things the experts recommend for developing school readiness:

  • Reading to your child

  • Encouraging your child to gradually become more independent in their self-care

  • Exposure to lots of different environments, and different sensory experiences

  • Exposure to other children in groups of different sizes

  • Gross motor activity, and

  • Playing and pretending

It’s a really big jump from playing with a few children at the park with you, or having play-dates at home with a few children, to being in a classroom of up to 30 children. It’s also a very big jump to go from short activity sessions to being engaged and learning for a full school day. There are lots of different activities that you can do regularly to build your child’s social skills, fatigue tolerance, self-regulation and willingness to be formally taught, such as story times at the library, concerts and music activities, dance classes and outings to museums and natural environments.

If you'd like to find out about CirQuest Circus's Play to Learn program for preschoolers and toddlers, check out the Early Childhood page on our website, or my earlier article in this blog, "Play to Learn preschool circus classes build school readiness by design."

Let’s not rush children into school before they are ready, but also let’s not hothouse children thinking that if we start teaching them coding or cursive script at two, that they’ll develop precocious abilities. Life is not a race, and the shortest distance between two points is not the only way to link them.


Centre for Community Child Health (2008) Policy Brief No 10 2008: Rethinking School Readiness The Royal Children’s Hospital Flemington Road PARKVILLE 3052 Victoria Australia

Centre for Community Child Health. (2005). School Readiness. Parent Information. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.

Child and Youth Health. (2008). Starting School. HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=122&id=1770

Connor, J., & Linke, P. (2007). Your Child’s First Year at School: A Book for Parents. Watson, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

Dent, Maggie (2012) Is your child ready to start school?

Dent, Maggie (2017) Important information re starting age for pre-primary in WA

Department of Education and Training. (2008). Preparing for Kindergarten. Retrieved March 11, 2008 from http:// NSW

Department of Education and Training. (2008). Starting School. Retrieved March 11, 2008 from http://www.schools.

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (2014). Continuity of Learning: A resource to support effective transition to school and school age care. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Department of Education.

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (2001). Starting School: Effective Transitions. Early Childhood Research in Practice, Vol 3 No 2 Fall 2001.

Owens, A. (2008). Family Factsheet: Transition to School. Retrieved March 13, 2008 from transition.pdf

Sutherland, K. (2008). First day jitters. Rattler, 75, 16 - 19.

Tansey, S. (2006). School’s In. Childcare Australasia, Vol 2 No 4 November 2006.

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