Is my child ready for school?

Starting school is a HUGE milestone for you and your child. Are they ready? And how can you help them be that bit more prepared? We get the lowdown from mums who've been there before you, plus expert advice from an educational psychologist

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Big School is getting nearer… gulp! But is your child prepared for it? And will they cope? “Your child may be almost 5 – or only just turned 4 – and no doubt you have a mixture of anxieties, excitement and pride,” says educational psychologist Naomi Burgess.

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You bet! In fact, you’ve probably been feeling that mixture of emotions for quite a while now. As Jenny B in our Facebook community tells us, “Dylan’s not school age yet but I’m already thinking, ‘Will he get the school we’re hoping for? Will he make friends? What if the other kids are mean to him – would he tell me?’ I’m sure the list will just grow the older he gets.”

Hands up who gets that?!

Despite our parental nerves, though, there’s a huge probability that our children will thrive at school and love it. Because, frankly, most children do – even the ones who take a bit longer to settle in to it at the beginning. (And, if they’re really struggling, there is help.)

But, in the days and weeks leading up to that Big First Day, it helps to know that your child is on track to get off to the best possible start. So, here is Naomi’s expert guide to the signs that your child is ready – emotionally and developmentally – to start school…

Signs that your child is emotionally ready to start school

Being able to make friends is a good sign they’re ready, says Naomi. “You are likely to know if your child is ready to enjoy school,” she says, “because they will be happy making friends with other children and being more independent, excited about learning and curious about the world.

“In other words, they’re ready to take those stabilisers off and move onto the next stage.”

An emotionally ready child is one who is able to relate to adults and other children, says Naomi.

That means they’re able to:

  • listen to others
  • observe others
  • share with others (at least some of the time!)
  • play with others

“Is your child confident talking to grown-ups,” says Naomi, “telling an adult how they are feeling, asking for what they need? Are they able to follow an adult’s instructions?

“Can they initiate conversation with other children or respond to other children who chat with them? Can the play alongside or with other children, take turns, share? Do they notice emotions in others?

“If you can’t say yes to all of these yet, don’t worry: I am sure you can tell if your child is ready to learn these things!”

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Signs that your child is developmentally ready to start school

Don’t worry about being able to recognise or form letters, says Naomi. That’s why your child goes to school, remember: to learn to read and write.

However, some speech and language skills are important, including, she says, being able to:

  • enjoy stories
  • know how to hold a book
  • talk about pictures
  • express ideas/thoughts in the past, the present and the future
  • listen and be interested in what others are saying

Reasonable fine-motor co-ordination is also useful. “Holding paint brushes and pencils and crayons is very much a part of any reception or P1 class, along with an emerging skill in manipulating small items and tools like scissors.”

If your child it still a bit clunky with their fingers and doesn’t like painting/drawing, try getting them spending time with jigsaw puzzles and construction kits, like Lego. Or get out the Playdough and roll ‘snakes’ and ‘worms’ and use cutters to make shapes. Or even find 2 pairs of tweezers and put a handful of Cheerios in 2 bowls – and race to see who can transfer all the Cheerios to the table one by one, using just the tweezers.

Signs that your child is independent enough to start school

Day-to-day independence skills are an important indicator of being ready for school, says Naomi. “Being able (or almost able) to put on and take off shoes and outerwear is important,” she says, “as it being able to eat independently and selecting food, carry a tray, use cutlery.”

How about going to the loo? Toilets can be scary in big school, just because they are! Can they open and close the door, manage their clothing, wiping, flushing, washing?

It’s nothing huge to worry about if your child isn’t quite ready enough to manage some of these things. Reception/P1 teachers are quite used to dealing with children who aren’t quite there yet but it’s best to flag these things up nice and early – maybe at a teacher home visit (if you have one) or at a ‘starters’ meeting’ (if your school arranges one).

“Talk to the teacher,” advises Naomi, “and together you can look for creative solutions.”

What about toilet accidents at school?

Most primary schools expect Reception/P1 children to be potty-trained. So, if your child isn’t, they will need to know in advance.

But no one will bat an eyelid if your child still has the odd accident (more likely, of course, if they’re getting used to a new routine and environment) or needs to wear pull-up pants occasionally. Most schools will have a stock of spare clothes for just this reason – although you may want to make sure your child has a spare pair of underwear in their locker or gym bag, too.

One of the mums in our Facebook community, Charlie F, tells us what happened with her daughter: “She was very shy and wouldn’t talk to anyone. She had a few days where she wouldn’t ask to use the toilet and had an accident – or came out of school desperate!”

If you think your child might have more than the occasional accident, it may be worth having a word with their teacher so they’re aware of the situation.

Do also try and talk to your child about not being shy to put their hand up if they need to go to the toilet while in class: assure them that the teacher will be happy for them to do so and that there’s nothing to worry about in doing this.

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Separation issues

“Are you and your child both beginning to feel confident about separating? ” asks Naomi. “It helps to know that, even if you are, it can still be a wrench and it will have its ups and downs.”

Of course, if your child has been at nursery or pre-school, even part-time, the separation thing may feel much easier for you both. As loufairy1 on our forum tells us: “My [son] went to the nursery attached to school from the age of 3. He absolutely loved it. I think it really prepared him for school, giving him confidence and good social skills – it really didn’t faze him starting school at the age of 5 and he still enjoys it every day.”

If your child hasn’t been to nursery or pre-school or find separation difficult, a great way to help them get ready for the realities of the school routine is to read them books about starting school.

Mum Kayleigh A in our Facebook community says: “I buy my children special bedtime stories about going to school in the lead up to starting school; it’s just something nice that we like to do together. Thankfully, all mine so far have been more than ready to start and have breezed on in through the gate on their first day.”

And remember: every child is different and will adapt in their own way

“No two children are the same – they all develop at different rates,” says Naomi. “And obviously these differences can be even greater if your child has a disability or special educational need.

“If you are in any way concerned about your child’s school readiness, please do seek professional advice about their transition to primary school.”

Hopefully, though, your child is so ready for school that, within a few days, they’ll be pulling you along to get there faster in the morning. Or maybe even you’ll see that kind of eagerness even before term starts…

“A child I know was so excited about their first day at Big School,” says Naomi, “that, the night before, she was found fast asleep in bed, with her uniform on ready, so she could leap out and go straight there!  I hope it is straightforward as that for many of you!”

About our expert educational psychologist Naomi Burgess

Naomi is a Registered Practitioner with the Health Professions Council and is a Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society. She has a PGCE and a Masters degree in Educational Psychology from the University Southampton. She works across 5 different education authorities in England, teaching and lecturing in Psychology, Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs.

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