When is it right for a toddler to start school?

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For many parents sending their child to a pre-school can sometimes be essential as they return to work. Five days a week becomes the norm for some children from as young as just a few months, with both parents forced to take jobs to support the household.

For other parents such as those who work from home, or who have part-time jobs, the pressure to send their child to school at that time can, therefore, be immense, as they imagine scenarios wherein their children are somehow missing out on vital education.

Recent studies have suggested however that in fact, those parents’ fears are unfounded and that sending a child to a preschool for only a day or two every week, or keeping the little one at home for longer may be beneficial in the long term.

Formal schooling

Children in South Africa generally start schooling in the year they turn seven, though registered counsellor at Chameleon Play Therapy Brenda Leemans suggests that it is common for parents whose children are born in December to ask for the child to defer starting school for a year.

“They do it with good reason. Their children will be a full year younger than a lot of other learners in their class and, at that age, the discrepancy is big and puts them at a disadvantage when compared with their peers,” she says, explaining that each child is different and ‘school readiness plays a large part’.

“Why the year they turn 7, though? That’s round about the time we can say that
most children’s brains are (collectively) developed enough to begin taking formal
instruction in reading and writing,” she adds.

Because they are starting school five days a week during the year they turn seven, Leemans advises that children really only need five days a week instruction in the year before grade one.

“There are many reasons for this: It’s a good practice round before the real race begins, and children can learn what might be expected of them in grade 1. Any learning difficulties, emotional issues, or other hindrances to effective schooling can be picked up and managed in this year, and they can be set on par with the peers before starting formal education,” she says adding. “Most primary schools have a grade 0 (or grade R) programme and it’s advisable that parents place their children in the intended primary school at this level.”

But what about children who are younger than grade 0? Leemans advises that this will depend heavily on the child, but suggests at least a few days a week would likely be good for them.

“If you’re able to, start phasing in time away from home, in the company of other
children, teachers and care-givers. Children need to know that when their parents go away for a while, they always come back. This facilitates healthy emotional development as well as a sense of autonomy and independence,” she says.

The more time spent with loving parents in a happy home, the better

Despite this advice, Leemans is also quick to caution at a toddler’s young age, “the more time spent with loving parents in a happy home, the better”.

“Home is a child’s rock; their safest place to be (in a perfect world) – if the home environment is stable, that creates a base from which they can launch themselves into the world; a little at a time. This builds little people who feel safe and loved and unafraid to try new things in new environments; knowing that a happy home is always waiting for them to return to,” she explains.

This advice is backed up by numerous recent studies, which show that a child’s long term success can often be determined by how much time they spend with their parents when they are small.

One study published on February 4th, 2019 by Eric Gould and Avi Simhon of Hebrew University in Israel, in the Journal of Labor Economics revealed that “The time parents spend with their children has a powerful effect on their long-term educational achievement”.

“Student success is not coming just from smart parents having smart kids,” said professor of economics at Ohio State University, Bruce Weinberg who co-authored the study.

But there is an important note here. A study published in 2015, by University of Toronto sociologist Melissa Milkie found that it was not simply the length of time a parent spent with their child that mattered.

“I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes,” Milkie said at the time.

What has been shown to matter is the quality of that time. According to the studies, hours spent with a child while you are working or distracted count not at all, while dedicated time and quality moments with a parent could be the most important aspect for helping a child to be “well-adjusted”, “sociable” and “less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour”.

Defining quality time

Perhaps then this is the reason why so many parents are these days determined to lay out money to try to create “quality time” with their children. But this is not necessary.

A 2007 study led by Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, a professor of anthropology at UCLA found that “the quiet, in-between moments of family life” did as much for family bonding as any fabricated family time. The study noted, “Everyday activities (like household chores or running errands) may afford families quality moments, unplanned, unstructured instances of social interaction that serve the important relationship-building functions that parents seek from ‘quality time’.”

Children seemed to value those regular moments more than the elaborate, scheduled, “fun” occasions, the study added.

For instance, a mounting body of evidence shows that children watching TV alone are disengaged and uninterested, but if a parent is actually watching along with their preschool-aged child as an active participant, it can have multiple beneficial effects.

Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children & Technology, in the US has shown that when kids watch educational shows with parents or caregivers they retain significantly more than when they watch alone.

“The more parents were involved… the more likely kids were going to experience the benefits of the media,” she notes.

So when is the right time to send a child to school? The answer seems simple, as soon as a parent is, for whatever reason, unable to spend dedicated, quality time with the child. For many this can be as early as just a few months, but for as long as a child has a parent who is able, willing, and eager to spend hours speaking to, and engaging with the child in an undistracted way, then all evidence points to this being the best way for them to spend their time, until grade 0, where they need to make the transition to formal schooling.

And for parents who do have to drop their children off at school five days a week from a young age, Leemans has some comforting words of advice, stating that schooling can be hugely beneficial for a child too, offering them the chance to socialise, and learn other skills provided the right research is done beforehand.

“When choosing a pre-school, parents need to investigate the school’s curriculum and mission statement. A child’s number one job at any age is to play to their heart’s content. Play is the method in which all learning, including intellectual, social, and physical development, takes place. The right preschool would have a play-based programme that facilitates these areas of development,” she suggests.