20th July 2017

Parents of pre-school children and infants often feel significantly stressed as they ponder the pros and cons of delayed entry to primary school in a vacuum of objective information, a QUT education academic said today.

Psychologist and education academic Dr Amanda Mergler, Senior Lecturer the Faculty of Education's School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, and co-author Professor Susan Walker, also of QUT, have published the results of a study into the factors that affect parents’ decisions about whether to voluntarily delay their child’s entry into formal schooling.

The study, “This is possibly THE hardest decision a parent has to make. Deciding when your child is ready to start Prep”(Australasian Journal of Early Childhood,42(2), June 2017) found the issue was a “highly emotional” one that caused significant stress.

“Parents want to do the best thing for their children,” Dr Mergler said. “But it is hard for them to wade through the enormous amount of well-meaning advice offered by friends and colleagues and decide what’s best.

Dr Mergler said it was difficult to objectively assess the relative benefits of delayed or on-time entry, with so many factors, such as the child’s personality and development, the intended school and its individual teachers.

"In deciding whether their child should be delayed from starting school six things parent could consider include:

  • how well their child can pay attention
  • how their child interacts with other children
  • whether their child enjoys structured activities
  • whether their child can follow simple, clear instructions
  • whether their child can communicate effectively with others
  • whether their children can independently use the toilet or ask for help.

“This is not a definitive list, and indeed some children may not be able to do these things when they do start school, but it could help guide parents as to what is right for their child.

"Parents should also have conversations with the school they intend to send their children to in order to understand what behaviours and skills the school expects the child to have when they start."

“Delayed entry” is defined as children who do not begin school in the first year that they are legally allowed to do so, but instead wait until the following year to start.

For example, in Queensland, where Dr Mergler conducted her research, a child born between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2011 can legally begin their first year of school (Prep) in January 2016. Beginning at that time would be considered “on time” school entry, while waiting until January 2017, while still legal in Queensland, is considered as “delayed entry”.

Statistics used as the basis of Dr Mergler’s study show that among Queensland public primary school students aged five and six in 2010-14, about 2.1 per cent were “delayed entry”.

However, the study shows the decision to delay is becoming more common, with the number of “delayed entry” students increasing each year so that the proportion among all public school students almost doubled from 1.5 per cent in 2010 to 2.9 per cent in 2014. Of the delayed entry students, the vast majority were the youngest in their cohorts, and 64 per cent were male.

Dr Mergler found that the child’s age in relation to the cut-off date (the date the child legally was unable to start school that year) was the most common motivation for parents who opted for delayed entry.

“While the date chosen by each state for cut-off appears to reflect an arbitrary approach to school starting age as shown by the differences within Australia, discussion forums including parents across Australia demonstrate that the date causes anxiety when children’s birthdays fall close to that cut-off,” Dr Mergler said.

“The forums also revealed many are worried their child may not be socially or developmentally ready for school, and those with children whose birthdays fall near that cut-off date are particularly anxious.

“Their concerns were not only immediate. Some parents wanted their child to be more mature and be one of the oldest in the class, indicating this would help them deal with issues in the final years of senior school such as peer pressure, drinking and remaining focused on studying.

“Surprisingly, though, the child’s academic readiness or development was rarely mentioned. No one said, ‘I want my kid to be in front’ – it was always, ‘I do not want my kid to be left behind’.”

“Our advice to parents considering this decision is that you know your child,” Dr Mergler said. “As a parent, it is wise to read widely in this area, and ask for input from childcare and kindergarten teachers and others, but ultimately you need to make a decision – an informed gut feeling – based on your child.”

In the meantime, Dr Mergler said more information and accessible advice from developmental experts and educators, ideally available online and open to interactive engagement, would help families trying to do the best for their children.

Dr Amanda Mergler and Professor Susan Walker, ‘This is possibly THE hardest decision a parent has to make’. Deciding when your child is ready to start Prep’,Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42(2), June 2017.

For more information or an interview, please contact Dr Amanda Mergler at QUT on +61 7 3138 3308 or 0402 496 774, or at a.mergler@qut.edu.au

Further media contact: media@qut.edu.au or 61 7 3138 1150 and 0407 585 901 after hours.

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