How Soon Is Too Soon? Knowing if your four-year-old is ready for school.

The excitement, the nervous stomach, the feeling of never wanting to let go; the first day of school is unforgettable, at least for parents. While they’re hiding in the mini-van trying to talk themselves out of watching through the window all day, most of the kids have moved past their initial reservations and are happily making new friends.

This year, however, there are a whole new set of reasons to worry. Thanks to a change in the province’s age of entry regulations, 2100 new four year olds will be added to the classroom. The new age cut-off, December 31st, brings Nova Scotia in line with most other provinces, but that doesn’t change some parents’ very real fear that their little one may just not be ready.

When Kingston mother-of-two Kim McMahon moved to the province last year ago she thought she had lots of time to prepare her three year old for school. It wasn’t until that September she learned her November born daughter Kyla, then enrolled in a pre-school with other three year olds, would be headed for ‘big school’ in just under a year.

“My main concerns were her social skills,” says McMahon of her generally shy child, “just being ready to interact with a large class, being able to have the stamina for the full day.”

McMahon’s not alone. In September, there will be four year olds starting primary with kids who are nearly six and, as parents will more than one child know well, kids mature at widely varying rates. While school may be just what some four year olds needs, for others, the idea of sitting quietly in circle time or spending most of the day away from mom or dad may be too much. The province has said parents unsure about sending those kids to school can choose to hold back a year, but how does a parent really know what’s best?

Developmental psychologist Dr. Robert Coplan of Carleton University says parents need to look at the child’s social development. A child who is bold and relaxed is not going to have much trouble adjusting but parents of one who is quiet or anxious might want to examine the situation closely. “It might not be the worst thing in the world for them to have an extra year of experiences to draw on,” says Dr. Coplan. At the same time, Coplan cautions parents against overprotecting kids, saying some will benefit from being pushed a bit out of their comfort zone.

A school psychologist with the Halifax Regional School Board, Bill O’Leary says, when making the decision to hold a child back a year, it’s important to consider what would change over that time.

“The question to solve is will another year at home eliminate the concern the parent has,” he says. He says often the issue is less about age and more about how the child has been prepared for school. O’Leary recommends teaching social skills like sharing, empathy and getting along. He says expensive pre-school don’t have to be the answer, instead recommending community groups like sparks or cubs or local play groups to provide the needed skills.

Joseph Howe school primary teacher Alice Moriarty admits there may be some young ones who might not be ready. She says if a child doesn’t have much in terms of verbal skills or if they are having trouble with toileting there may be some valid concerns but overall the child who is truly not ready is pretty rare. “I’ve seen a lot of range of readiness for skills, but they all get there through the year.”

“As a parent the first thing I would do is take a look at the classroom, it would tell me everything I need.” Moriarty says any child can learn in a child centered classroom. She says parents should look for different stations like craft areas, sand and water tables, imaginative play opportunities like play houses and dress up as well as lots and lots of books.

She says kids don’t all have to be at the same stage to start school. “They don’t all need to look the same, walk the same and talk the same they just need to be succeeding and growing.”

And that’s what Kim McMahon hopes she’s offering her daughter. In the end she decided to enrol Kyla in a second pre-school with other kids getting ready for school to help her adjust to the expectations of bigger classrooms and longer days. “Now she even asks to go to preschool on the weekends,” says McMahon.

“I think she’ll still have her challenges because she is a shy child,” says McMahon but she says the growing confidence she sees will help her handle the new challenges ahead.

School psychologist Bill O’Leary says McMahon’s solution may not be the answer for every child but he says a proactive approach to help a young child get ready is the right approach.

O’Leary says parents who are concerned should consult with the school but he says other provinces have had a December age cut-off for years and “if having kids go to school at this age was a problem… we would have heard about it.”

What Your Child Should Know When Starting Primary: One Teacher’s Advice

Children enter school at all stages of development but Joseph Howe’s Alice Moriarty says there is a baseline of knowledge that will make it easier to meet the outcomes expected by the end of the year.

  • Letters: It’s not just about singing the alphabet song; kids should be able to recognize at least some of the letters in both lower and upper case.
  • Numbers: should be counting to at least five.
  • Name: should be able to recognize their name with the first letter capitalized and the rest in lower case letters.
  • Bathroom skills: should be able to go to the toilet on their own.
  • Verbal skills: need to be able to interact with the teacher and other students.
  • Dressing skills: should be able to put their boots on and perhaps how to put on a coat.