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Delaying Your Child’s Start of School – Yes or No?

Delaying Your Child’s Start of School – Yes or No?

Most Australian parents of school-age children have asked themselves, when is the right time to send my child to school? If their birthday falls towards the end of the cut off period, should you keep them back a year? Or maybe they’re not quite as social as some of the other kids their age. Is this a reason to delay their start?

The decision about whether or not to delay your child’s start in school is a big one. But it’s also a difficult one that can cause parents quite a bit of stress and anxiety. So, what is the right thing to do? Should you delay your child’s start of school?

Parents struggle to decide whether or not to delay

If you’re struggling to decide on what age to send a child to school, you’re not alone. Psychologist Dr Amanda Mergler from the School of Early Childhood at Queensland University of Technology studied 224,000 state school students over four years. As part of this study, Dr Mergler attended online forums with parents who all found this a difficult decision to grapple with and often became ‘overwhelmed, anxious and stressed’.

The decision is not made easier by the fact that the school starting age varies from state to state. Under current laws there may be kids starting school as young as four-and-a-half years old, or as late as six.

Many parents are delaying their kids

Dr Mergler’s research shows that parents are increasingly holding their kids back from starting school. From 2010 to 2014 the number of children held back in Queensland state schools more than doubled. Throughout Australia, about 14.5% of parents choose delayed entry. And in NSW that number is even higher, at 22%. Parents of boys are more likely to delay as well – 64% of Queensland children held back were boys.

Parents consider many factors when decided what age to send a child to school. One is the how close the child’s birthday is to the cut-off date. Parents whose child was born just a month or two prior to the age cut-off date for starting school were more likely to delay the start.

But parents also consider social and emotional development issues such maturity levels, the ability to stay focussed and the parent’s own experiences at school. And parents of boys are more likely to delay their start of school – 64% of children held back were boys.

But are they really giving their kids an advantage?

What are the advantages?

A Stanford University study found that kids who weren’t enrolled in school until after the age of six scored better on tests of self-control, focus and time management. These ‘executive functions’ are central to learning and development.

Another study showed that delaying until the age of seven reduced inattention and hyperactivity in kids by up to 73%. And a recent and compelling study from the University of NSW found that those who were ‘held back’ in order to start school at an older age scored better on developmental milestones than their younger schoolmates. And these outcomes improved for each month they delayed.

The biggest advantage of delaying is the fact that this increases that amount of time that our kids can just play. Over the last ten years the early years of school have increasingly focussed less on play and more on academics. But a mountain of research has confirmed the importance of play for our children’s physical and mental health. A delay means more time to play, and more positive outcomes for our kids.

What are the disadvantages?

On the other hand, Dr Mergler believes that while there might be a small advantage to being older than classmates at the start of their schooling journey, this advantage diminishes with age.

And holding our kids back can have negative knock-on effects in the schooling system. It can create an even greater gap between the ages of the youngest and oldest kids in the class and force teachers to prepare lesson plans that suit a widening range of capabilities.

So, should we be delaying our kids start in school?

The research is pretty clear – there are advantages for our kids when we delay their school start date. While the long-term advantages may be a matter up for debate, in the early years a delay can help ease the way, and lead to positive outcomes for our kids.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.

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