Is my daughter ready for school?

Rebecca Chaney faces the quandary of whether or not to send her daughter to school next year.

I’m watching my child in the preschool playground. I have just kissed her goodbye for the day. She runs to her teacher and gives her a hug. The teacher hugs her back, before indicating that her friends are playing in the sandpit. My daughter takes a few hesitant steps towards them and then stops. She waits. Her teacher waits.

I wait. I hold my breath, mentally willing her to take the last all-important steps towards her group of friends, to sit down and join in. She continues to stand still, uncertainty showing on her face. I can tell that she wants to go to them, that she wants to join in. Her lack of confidence holds her back.

Her friends are oblivious to the torment my daughter is feeling, that is until one happens to look up. She spies my daughter, jumps up and bounds over to her. Soon my daughter is engrossed in playtime with her friends, a smile on her face.

My eyes meet those of the teacher. She has also witnessed my daughter’s dilemma. It is the subject of recent discussions with my teacher, discussions that have started to make me rethink my position.

To send or not to send? Is my daughter ready for school?

You see, my daughter is one of the unlucky ones. I say ‘unlucky’ as it means that her father and I have to make what is turning out to be a difficult decision, a decision that may affect our daughter’s educational experience – whether to send our daughter to school in the first year she is eligible to attend, or hold her back to start the following year.

My daughter is one of those children whose birthday falls at the beginning of the year. She will be one of the youngest children if she starts school in the first year she is eligible, or if held back, she will be one of the oldest.

I must admit that at the start of this year I assumed she would be ready. After all, she would have a whole 12 months to mature both academically and emotionally. But now I’m not so sure. Okay, she’s the baby of my brood, the youngest of my three children. You probably think I’m having second thoughts about sending her because it signals the end of an era of having a child at home with me. You couldn’t be further from the truth. A big, maybe selfish, part of me would love her to start sooner rather than later. The part of me that craves some of my ‘old life’ back would love to send my daughter to school in the first year that she is eligible.

But then an even bigger part of me, the part that cherishes having her company on non-preschool days, says, ‘Keep your baby at home for as long as you can’. Once your child walks through those school gates, a special part of their childhood is gone forever.

But the most important question of all is what would be best for her. Is it better to put her in sooner so that if it doesn’t work out, she still has a year to repeat? Or would that only make things worse? Is holding her back the safer option?

And to top it all off, there is the well-meaning but conflicting advice from others.

“You all managed,” the older generation persists. And that’s just it. I don’t want my daughter to just manage, to just get by. I want her to flourish, I want her to embrace the whole educational experience with confidence and enjoy it! After all, she’s going to be at school for a very long time. And as for managing, will she cope when things go wrong, or will she stand back, as she did in the playground this morning, and wait for someone to rescue her?

I am only a parent. I am certainly no expert, but I do know one thing. Children seem to switch off from things they are not enjoying. Is my daughter more likely to enjoy school if she starts when she is a year older? She certainly enjoys preschool, but I know from my older children’s experiences that primary school requires a lot more interaction with others, and presents a lot more opportunities for a fragile confidence to be shaken. Will she be better equipped to handle these opportunities with another year under her belt?

With the cut-off dates for the minimum age of entry to primary school varying from State to State in Australia, is it any wonder I am confused? Add to this the fact that we seem to have one of the lowest starting ages in the world and I have to ask, has Australia got it wrong? Do we need to rethink our current emphasis on accelerated learning for children as young as four and five? Will it short-change my daughter of her childhood to thrust her into our formal school system, where the focus seems to be on structured curriculum results, at such a young age? Would another year of preschool experiences end up boring her to tears?

What if it doesn’t? What if my daughter withdraws further? Is my daughter more likely to lead than follow if I hold her back? Or is her shyness so ingrained in her personality that the year she starts school will have little bearing on how she fares?

A friend of mine has another perspective on the issue. She has two teenagers, one about to finish high school, the other two years younger. Both her children are among the eldest in their school year. She didn’t think much about it when her children were in primary school, but she now sees some interesting ramifications. In her opinion, the older students tend to lead, the younger ones tend to follow. The older students in Year 12 are getting their driver’s licences, the younger ones are passengers (I know which one I’d rather my daughter was). The older students can legally have a drink on the weekends; the younger ones are under-age drinkers, sneaking drinks to remain part of the social group. I suppose it’s something to think about…

As I arrive at preschool that afternoon to take my daughter home, I see her radiant face among a huddle of heads engrossed in reading time. She joins in when questions are asked about the book being read, looking calm, confident and happy. Maybe she would be okay, maybe she is ready to move on.

Then again, what’s the hurry? What’s one more year at home in the whole scheme of things? As I said before, my daughter will be at school for a long time. My greatest wish is that she has a wonderful time while she’s there. In the meantime, I’m going to make the most of my time with her at home.

Illustrations by Sam Pash