Parenting, as any parent who’s being honest will tell you, is not an exact science. We do our best for our little ones, keep them safe, and try to make the best decisions as they come at us, one after the other, like a barrage of punches that we have to duck. Parenting is one of the most amazing aspects of being a human being, and it’s also one of the hardest.
Sometimes, there simply isn’t a right or wrong answer. We gather the information to the best of our ability and attempt to find rhyme it reason with it. That’s the case when it comes to choosing a school for our children, and especially when it comes to the difficult questions around that decision.
According to a report on in the Daily Mail “children should not have to start school until they are six to prevent early ‘adultification.’” The report further says, “only children from deprived backgrounds should enter formal education at the younger age because they would ‘benefit from such early interventions.’”
Concerns can arise due to the fact that children can start school at different ages and therefore there can be various levels of development within the same class and/or school year. That said, children are ready for school at different ages. Most experts agree that, if you feel that your child is not quite ready, seek advice from the primary school, and from the staff in your son or daughter’s childcare group. And don’t forget to do your bit to help prepare your child – talking to your child and reading aloud all help with their intellectual and social development, say the experts.
A recent study from Stanford University has revealed that it’s not necessarily beneficial to send a child to school too early. In fact, Danish children who had their kindergarten enrollment delayed by a year displayed higher levels of self-control.
“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11,” Thomas Dee, one of the co-authors and a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor, said in a press release.
This is significant because children in the US used to start kindergarten at five, and now 20 percent of attendees are six. More and more parents are delaying sending their children to kindergarten, with the anecdotal reasoning seeming to be allowing the child to get better prepared cognitively, socially and/or emotionally. The results are clearly mixed depending on the individual child, but there is no evidence that holding back a child beyond the age of six is beneficial, unless the parent is a skilled home-schooler.
Lisa Trank-Greene, principal at Flagstaff Academy in Longmont, believes that consistency helps. Flagstaff takes children from pre-school through to middle school. “There’s the consistency with the core knowledge curriculum,” Trank-Greene said. “It’s this entire educational journey right through high school. They develop relationships. Some kids leave, some come back. Our experience is that even if they enter in middle school, by the time they leave they’re incredibly high school ready. That’s not always the case. The benefits are reflected in relationships as well as just in the consistency.”
Trank-Greene emphasized the benefits of sending young children to school.
“The standard is between two and a half and four years old when starting to think about it,” she said. “You want to send your child to school to help develop their social skills and make them more independent. Get their self-esteem really going. Taking a step outside of the family unit into a larger world. Learning to navigate that in a safe, loving, supportive environment.”
Not every child is right for every school, so is there a personality type that suits Flagstaff? “They’re really creative and independent,” Trank-Greene says. “Hard workers, and rally strive to do well. Leaders too. I see across the board, from the different levels, young leaders are developing. There’s a lot of initiative and entrepreneurial spirit as well. The attitude is, if they want to do it, we’ll help support them to do it. Our green house was a product of parents and students wanting to have that and raising the money. Getting grants. I think that’s really at the fibre of the school – that sense of initiative and innovation.”
Patty Quinn, director of Flagstaff Academy Preschool, says that parents should start thinking about sending their children to school between the ages of two and four years old. “The main reason for sending a child to preschool is to develop social skills, increase independence, build self-esteem, and learn how to survive in a group situation,” she said. “The best time to start school varies with the individual child. Some factors parents should consider are: What would my child be doing if not in a school environment? How often does my child socialize with children of the same age? Is my child able to separate from parents? Is my child able to communicate his or her needs? Is my child independently toilet trained? Is my child able to explore and grow in the area of social or emotional competence without being enrolled in a preschool? Does my child have opportunities to make choices, listen to stories, and work on gross and fine motor skills on a daily basis? Is my child exposed to different cultures, music, art, science, and social studies on a regular basis?”
An article in Education Next by David Elkind spelled out the potential problems succinctly. “Children are not born knowing the difference between red and green, sweet and sour, rough and smooth, cold and hot, or any number of physical sensations. The natural world is the infant’s and young child’s first curriculum, and it can only be learned by direct interaction with things. There is no way a young child can learn the difference between sweet and sour, rough and smooth, hot and cold without tasting, touching, or feeling something. Learning about the world of things, and their various properties, is a time-consuming and intense process that cannot be hurried,” Elkind wrote.
That’s the key – it can’t be hurried. “Yet there is a growing call for early-childhood educators to engage in the academic training of young children,” Elkind continued. “The movement’s beginnings lay in the fears sparked by the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957. The civil rights movement and the growing public awareness of our educational system’s inequality led to the creation of Head Start, a program aimed at preparing young disadvantaged children for school. Although Head Start is an important and valuable program, it gave rise to the pernicious belief that education is a race—and that the earlier you start, the earlier you finish.”
The tag “gifted child” is worn like a badge of honor by, well, just about everyone. Surely the priority should be ensuring that our children are blessed with as normal and healthy an upbringing as possible. Does that mean that we shouldn’t push them when appropriate? Not at all. But as parents, we have to know when that appropriate time is.
“In the end, there is no solid research demonstrating that early academic training is superior to (or worse than) the more traditional, hands-on model of early education,” Elkind concludes. “Why take the risky step of engaging in formal academic training of the young when we already know what works?”
The good news is that, for the most part, the schools here in Boulder County and the surrounding area seem to have found the right balance. Erie Elementary School, for example, they say that a strong sense of commitment and enthusiasm prevails among the staff as they strive to work together with parents, the community, and each other to help each child be successful both academically and socially. “Specifically, the school’s goals are centered around reading, writing and mathematics. To meet these goals, instructional decisions are based on the continual gathering of data throughout the year. A professional learning community exists within the building that allows staff members to meet weekly to examine lessons and resulting student work and assessment data. The result is classroom instruction that is engaging, thoughtful, and changes to meet the varying needs of the children.”
Lafayette Elementary School has a similar message, stating that, “The mission of Lafayette Elementary is to foster academic and social development of our students through a challenging and engaging curriculum, differentiated instruction, and on-going communication between parents, staff members, and students. We empower our students to be logical problem solvers, compassionate decision makers, and responsible citizens. Our commitment to high quality instruction nurtures the curiosity within and creates a community of learners who are capable of independent thinking.”
Louisville Elementary School is a little most academic driven with its message, but it emphasises what appears to be a good balance. “At Louisville, student achievement, along with building students’ self-esteem and self-confidence in a safe, caring environment, is our primary focus,” they said. “We strive to see our students become self-confident lifelong learners. Students in first through fifth grades participate in 55-minute (30 minutes for kindergartners) reading instruction blocks. Students are grouped by individual needs. We also group and regroup students for one-hour math blocks in second through fifth grades. Our high-quality instructional program has resulted in increased student achievement in all content areas.”
Kimberly Bloemen is the director of early childhood education at Boulder Valley School District, and she feels strongly that parents need to be thinking about their child from the moment they decide to have one.
“It really starts from the importance of ensuring that the mother is getting proper prenatal care – the whole brain development,” she says. “From the moment your child is born, I think you need to be thinking about your interactions with your child, your play with your child, stimulating your child. I believe in universal preschool and I believe that should begin at three years of age. I feel really strongly about that. But I believe those infant/toddler years are critical brain development years. I’m a mom of three kids, and it’s so important to be interacting and reading with your child. I’m amazed how many parents I talk to who are like, ‘I should read to my infant?’ Even if they’re sitting in your lap and you’re reading a book, you’re connecting. The neurons are firing in their brains. It’s having those constant interactions. Pointing out things in their environment. So I think education, interaction, it happens at a very young age. It can happen in the home, and it can happen at school. I’m a huge advocate for early learning starting at the moment the child is born.”
Bloemen agrees with Trank-Greene that consistency with schooling is vital. “If you go to one preschool age three and another one at four, and then a different kindergarten, the child is having to relearn academic language in the environment,” she said. “Every environment looks a little bit different, and every teacher has a little bit of a different teaching style. I believe in that whole continuity of care and I like to see that consistency for a child.”
So where is the line? what is too much when it comes to early academic pushing? Bloemen says that comes down to individual decisions from the parents. “I can say as a mom, I have kids that are in college and high school now, and you have to balance,” she said. “You want your kids, especially at an early age, to play and interact. But you also have to be careful about how many things you sign your kids up for. I know the pressure as a mom. I remember when my kids were little and I did the Gymboree Club, the Mommy & Me class, and it can get too much. It really needs to be a family decision, and I think that families really need to remember that, at an early age, it’s all about exploration for kids. They need to feel it, see it, touch it, hear it – it’s a multi-sensory approach and I think as long as you realise that you want them to have a childhood that’s fun and engaging at the same time. You have to be careful signing kids up for too many things, because it can be too much for little kids.”
At the end of the day, that’s the conclusion that we can draw. Do your research, look into the best schools and, of course, know your child. Interact with them, play with them, and read with them. But it’s all about individual choice. Only you know how much you can push your child, and each child is different. But when it comes to thinking about your child’s education, about starting to draw up a plan, you really can’t start soon enough.