School readiness depends as much on emotional maturity as it does on scholastic ability.
In order to be deemed cognitively school ready, children need to achieve a test age of 6 years 3 months on school readiness assessments. Yet, I have assessed many children who have scored much higher than this and still recommended that they were not school ready based on their levels of emotional maturity. This happens very often with children whose birthdays fall in the last quarter of the year and are having to compete with classmates who are virtually a year older and more capable, simply by virtue of their age.
There also seems to be a commonly held myth that all children reach the same level of maturity at the same age. Children vary greatly in their levels of emotional maturity. This is partly influenced by parenting but also depends to a large extent on a natural developmental process and will increase with time.
So what exactly do we look for when we assess school readiness? By no means are we expecting children to act like miniature versions of serious adults. We still expect them to be childlike, to be more focused on fun than anything else and to be largely egocentric in their outlook, but we expect them to display some of the following traits:
- Confidence. Is your child confident enough to speak up in a busy classroom when he is uncomfortable or needs help? A formal schooling environment does not always allow the teacher to pay individual attention to each child and children who do not speak up may easily fall behind. Children also need to be able to let the teacher know when they need a bathroom break, are feeling ill, do not have the right tools or are being bullied.
- Separation. Does your child separate easily from you when you drop him off in the morning or are the goodbyes long, teary affairs? Some crying in the first few weeks is absolutely normal and is even expected, but teachers simply will not have the time (and often will not have the patience) to console a tearful child all day long.
- Responsibility for his belongings. Does your child remember to put his lunchbox back in his bag and his eraser back in his pencil case or is his teacher constantly running after him returning lost goods?
- Concentration. Is your child able to sit still at a desk and concentrate for relatively long periods at a time? Grade 1 teachers will allow for many short breaks during the day, but a child who is constantly getting out of his seat can be very disruptive and will soon elicit complaints from his classmates.
- Problem solving. Is your child able to solve the majority of basic little problems that pop up on a daily basis? For example, will he know to borrow a ruler from a friend if he doesn’t have one or ask his teacher to phone you if he’s left his lunch behind or go to look in the lost property box when he can’t find his jersey? This also relates to social interactions. “Telling on” is probably the phrase heard most often on foundation phase playgrounds and teachers expect to be asked to be both judge and jury in certain cases, but children need at least some basic skills in resolving minor conflicts.
- Independence. Can your child complete most tasks on his own or is he constantly running to his teacher’s table for approval or intervention?
- Persistence. Carefully designed lessons include both tasks that are easy to complete, so that learners experience a sense of accomplishment, and tasks that are challenging, to extend the learners. Some children have a habit of simply shrugging their shoulders and repeating the familiar refrain “I can’t do it” without ever really having given the task a full go, thus never progressing to higher levels of academic work.
- Encourage your child to engage with unfamiliar children and adults in safe, social environments.
- Allow your child to do age-appropriate things for himself and refrain from interfering unless he asks for your help. Also, when he does ask for your help, encourage him to work through the problem solving process with you by asking questions such as: How else could we do this? What do you think we need to do first / next? What could we have done differently?
- Take a step back when your child is faced with conflict situations in peer relationships (this is very hard, but give it a try) and observe whether he is able to solve the conflict on his own. Only get involved when someone stands to get hurt. Also, once the situation has been diffused offer solutions on how to handle similar conflicts in the future.