Earlier this year our youngest son started school. Since then, I’ve been hawkishly watching his progress for signs that ‘we should have waited another year’. When I set out to do research for this article I expected to find lots of empirical evidence to support the commonly held view that boys benefit from starting school later than girls – what I discovered was quite surprising.
The rationale for the later-start argument is that boys’ brains mature at a slower rate than girls’ meaning that at school starting age they may be less able to sit still and pay attention for long periods and are less able to control their emotions and behaviour.
Surprising findings on importance of social-emotional skills
Common sense would suggest that this social-emotional aspect of development is so important for school success that boys who are a little older will clearly do better.
But what the evidence actually suggests is that at school entry a child’s cognitive ability (basic maths and reading) is more important for success than their level of social and emotional maturity. This certainly goes against what we as parents are usually told however I will briefly outline some of the major findings.
Social-emotional skills found to be of little importance for later academic success
A US study by Duncan et al (2007) analysed the results overall of six very large studies (each study involving many thousands of children) and compared the importance of early maths skills, readings skills, attention, social skills, and emotional and behavioural maturity for later school success.
They found that maths skills were most important, followed by reading and then attention.
Surprisingly, the social-emotional skills were shown to be of little importance for later success. They also found the pattern of results to be similar for both boys and girls. Admittedly, this study measured success only in terms of academic outcomes and didn’t consider other outcomes such as peer relations, self-esteem, motivation to learn or engagement.
However, the findings are reasonably consistent with the results of a large Australian study (Growing Up In Australia – The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children). A paper by Dr Ben Edwards describes the study’s findings regarding the benefits of starting school later.
In short, children who started later outperformed the early starters on cognitive outcomes in the second year of school but there were no differences between the children on social-emotional outcomes (peer relations, hyperactivity, conduct problems, and emotional symptoms).
The study did find that boys who started later had greater verbal skills in the second year whereas there was little difference for the girls. You can listen to an interview with Dr Edwards on the study’s findings on ABC Radio National Website.
Ok…but I’m still dubious
In short, the evidence suggests that having less than fully developed social and emotional competencies at school entry is unlikely to be a significant hindrance to our sons upon starting school – but…
I have to admit that this is one area where I’m actually a little unconvinced by the research. There is certainly a large amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting that boys who can better control themselves emotionally and behaviourally transition to school more easily and this seems to gel better with what many parents report about their own experience of starting boys at school.
Indicators of School Readiness
As parents I think we need to consider each of our children individually in terms of school readiness. Rather than thinking about it in terms of years of age we need to consider how our children measure up on some basic indicators of school readiness.
So, rather than saying “He’s only 5, he’s not ready for school” ask instead – “does he have the confidence to enter a group of playing children, can he unwrap his own sandwich?”). Nicole Avery has put together a very good post entitled 10 Indicators of School Readiness which covers the topic very nicely. I recommend you have a read of Nicole’s list if you’re in the process of deciding whether or not to start your son in school.
Your son’s good relationship with you will be his biggest asset
We know that children who receive warm, loving, responsive parenting are best equipped to handle the huge transition to school. Children who come from this type of loving home environment tend have positive self-concepts, the skills to interact successfully with both teachers and peers, and the resilience necessary to cope with this huge transition successfully.
A positive learning environment at home will also help your son towards school success. Read to him constantly from birth, let him see you reading for your own pleasure, have lots of books and/or magazines in the home. Make sure your home has lots of fun, interesting things for him to do and take him out regularly to see new sights and experience new things.
And if you’re ticking all the boxes in this regard then you are already well on your way to ensuring your son has a positive start to school life.