Is my daughter ready for primary school?

My daughter, who will be four in August this year, is enrolled to start primary school in September next year when she will be just gone five. She has been in creche from a young age and has been following the Montessori programme since September last. She is a bright child who shows a keenness to learn as well as an ability to understand things.

I have recently heard that a few of her classmates, of similar age, are enrolled for starting in primary school this September. This has made me reevaluate our decision. I am concerned that her development will be thwarted by not having the structure and challenges of a school environment, that she may feel left behind or “babyish” if her peers are progressing to school, and that she may now be one of the oldest children in the class if she starts when she is five.

I have contacted the school that she is enrolled in and they can take her in September of this year. Do you think it would be better for her to start then or wait until next year? I’m not sure that she is emotionally ready for school – she can get overwhelmed by situations, can be quite shy and often still resorts to tears. Will this change by the time she is five?

The rule from the Department of Education is that a child must be no older than six and at least four years old by the September of the year they start, and most children start school when they are four or five. This means that if your daughter was to start this year she would be just old enough and might be the youngest in the class, while if she waited until next year she would be slightly older than the average but unlikely to be the oldest.

In deciding when a child should start school the key thing to take into account is their school readiness rather than their actual age. Of particular importance is their social and emotional readiness rather than their academic ability. Consider the demands of school such as participating in the class, having a more structured day, fitting in with a larger group, etc. Then consider whether your daughter will be able to participate confidently or whether she would be more ready next year.

From what you describe about your daughter’s shyness and being overwhelmed by situations, it may be no harm to wait one more year. However, you should also talk to your daughter’s Montessori teacher, who will be able to advise you on how ready she is. In many ways, the Montessori approach follows some of the structures of the school day, though in a more relaxed and age-appropriate fashion, so the teacher will be able to give you an indication of where your daughter is at.

While many parents worry that their child will lose out academically if they don’t start school younger, in fact the reverse may be true. If your daughter spends an extra year in the more supportive environment of the Montessori where she builds her confidence as one of the “older” girls, then she may become a much more competent learner and be more prepared when she starts formal school.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.