When Should Children Begin Formal Schooling?

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On the first day of school each fall, a tramping of five-year-old feet can be heard across the nation as children begin their first day of kindergarten. Some will joyfully race into the classroom, jubilant to finally be attending school. Others will cinch their little arms around Mom’s leg, whimpering uncertainly. Still others will do exactly what they are told to do, neatly and quietly. (Teachers love these kids.) And there will be some who will come in looking completely lost … as if they woke up that morning and ended up on another planet. Knowing that no two children develop at exactly the same rate, the question we should ask is, “How many of these five-year-olds are really ready to begin school?”

Just as a pediatrician will not give a concerned mother the exact age when her toddler will begin to walk, educators cannot pinpoint the exact point in cognitive development when a child should begin school. Development is a process played out on a unique timeline in each individual.

On average, children began to walk between 7 and 10 months of age. This means that some will take their first faltering steps when they are seven months while others will not feel their need of bipedal locomotion until they are nearing the year mark. This example may seem simple to us, and we would shake our heads in disbelief if some overanxious parent began requiring their perfectly healthy child to walk at seven months. Our disbelief would turn to open-mouthed incredulity if that parent proceeded to consult specialists who, in turn, labeled that child with “locomotor disabilities” and in need of physical therapy.

“Ludicrous!” we’d cry, “Give that child some time!” And we would be right. If only those nervous parents would calm down and wait a little longer they would see their youngster happily toddling across the floor when he was ready. And that really is the key.

We, as parents and educators, understand developmental readiness in terms of walking, talking, and potty training, but since the rest of the country is sending their children to school at age five, we do too. However, when our child doesn’t read “on time” or learn to add with the rest of the class, we panic and call in the specialists. Does it not occur to us that maybe, just maybe, our child wasn’t ready for school at age five?

Let’s return to our example of the delayed walker. What his parents failed to understand was that there are a series of events leading up to those first memorable steps.

Baby’s path to walking begins with flailing his arms and legs. While this doesn’t seem very productive, it’s important for building up the muscle he’ll need later. When baby is laid on his tummy, he learns to lift his head, thus developing his cervical curve. Later, he will learn to sit independently, balance on his hands and knees, and crawl. This develops the curve in the lumbar region of his back and further strengthens the muscles necessary for walking. Finally, our little adventurer will begin standing and, ultimately, stepping out on his own.

The same is true with a child’s brain. Unseen to us, the brain is developing and growing, building neuron pathways, fine tuning hand-eye coordination, and preparing for the moment when it can take its first steps in formal education. And just as there is a range of time in which a child will walk, there is a range of time in which a child will be ready to learn. With walking we can see when a child physically passes certain milestones, but how can we tell if a child’s brain has developed adequately enough to be ready for school?

During the Middle Ages, parents knew by giving their young children an entrance exam. An apple and a coin were presented to a youngster and he was asked to choose which one he would like to have. If he chose the coin over the apple, it was noted that his brain was mature enough to reason that while the apple would provide instant gratification, the coin was of ultimately more value. That child was ready for school.

There has always been a lot of debate about the exact age children should begin formal schooling. However, there is also an interesting case study to examine.

A notoriously private people, Finland garnered world-wide attention in 2000 when its 15-year-olds ranked first in reading on the newly developed Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. (PISA is a standardized exam developed in 1997 which every three years tests 15-year-olds from more than 40 member countries in reading, math, and science.) By 2006, Finland led the world in science scores. By 2009, Finnish youth ranked near the top in all three disciplines—scoring second in science, third in reading, and sixth in math. Interestingly enough, the Finnish educational system does not consider a child ready for formal schooling until the age of seven.

Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the educational philosophy of Finland.

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