How do you know: Your child is ready for ‘BIG’ school
We all want our children to be school-ready by the time they go to Grade 1. However, how do we know that our children will meet the demands of the school classroom? Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma encourages parents to foster learning readiness in their children.

Legislation in South Africa states that five-year-olds may enter Grade 1 if they turn six before 30 June in that year and that all children that turn seven in the course of that calendar year must be admitted to Grade 1. This would therefore imply that any child between the ages of 5 ½ years and 7 years could be deemed school-ready and will therefore thrive in the more formal academic environment associated with entering a primary school.

The importance of learning readiness
School-readiness has, however, become a highly controversial topic over the last two decades as professionals know now that a child’s chronological age is not automatically suggestive of their ability to meet the necessary requirements and to be able to assimilate the content of the school curriculum. In spite of learning being an essential part of growing up, some children seem to take longer to reach a point where they are able to learn school-related concepts. Developmentally, children do not always achieve milestones simply in terms of chronological age. They can be said to lack learning readiness.

With this in mind special permission can be obtained to allow a child to enter Grade 1 in the year she turns eight, but only with the required educational reports explaining that developmental delays or other factors would hamper that child reaching her full potential at that particular stage of her development.

Entering your child into Grade 1 is therefore such an important educational milestone and it is no wonder that parents often feel a little anxious not knowing if their child is ready for ‘big school’.

What matters most?
Surely one of the most important concepts to understand when determining your child’s readiness is to realise that no child can be ‘taught’ how to be school-ready during their Grade R/0 year. To be deemed school-ready at some point is in actual fact a process of neurodevelopment that starts directly after birth (or really after conception!). A child may very well eventually pass a school readiness test in Grade R, but not be learning-ready. This is because many school readiness tests do not explore the child’s level of neurodevelopment, but instead look for signs that certain abilities have developed that are needed to perform in the classroom. So, although many children will show that their school readiness abilities are on par, the foundation of neurological systems on which these abilities rest could be underdeveloped. They may then start showing problems in school within a short period of time or even a year or so later.

Fortunately, parents can foster and encourage their children’s learning readiness from early on and ensure a child that not only passes a school readiness test, but also has a solid neurodevelopmental foundation to navigate from. There are four broad categories of important milestones to stimulate before enrolling your child for Grade 1.

Neurodevelopment
Healthy neurodevelopment forms the foundation of all learning. Through the workings of the nervous system, children are able to take in information from everything in their environment through their outside sensory systems of sound, sight, touch, taste, smell, as well as their inside sensory systems such as where they are positioned in space and their movements. All of this information is processed in the brain and only then does the body respond in the appropriate way. Children who have not developed the brain connections needed to cope with school-related learning are neurologically immature and not learning ready.

Simple ways to foster this area of development:

  • A wide range of free movement from infancy and beyond
  • Playfully stimulate the senses (sound, sight, touch, taste, smell)
  • Many opportunities playing outside on safe climbing equipment
  • Limited screen exposure
  • Controlling allergies as best as possible
  • Ensuring a healthy diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids
  • A psychologically healthy, safe and emotionally nurturing environment

Physical development
Physical development would refer to gross motor skills (such as running, climbing, kicking a ball, etc.), balance (such as walking on a straight line, standing on one leg, etc.), coordination of movements (such as riding bicycle, doing star jumps, etc.), body awareness (knowing left from right, etc.), and fine motor development (such as using a pencil or scissors, etc.).

Simple ways to foster this area of development:

  • Kicking and throwing balls
  • Encouraging outside free play on jungle gyms
  • Balancing on a straight line or low bench
  • Jumping on one leg
  • Enough opportunities on balance bikes and pedal bikes
  • Playing follow-the-leader
  • Playing with clay and cutting with scissors
  • Threading of beads
  • Building puzzles
  • Enough painting and drawing activities to encourage pencil grip
  • Pegboard activities

Emotional and Social development
Emotional development would refer to a young child being able to identify and name their own emotions and that of those around them. It is also vital that a child can regulate their emotions and therefore be able to calm themselves when being separated from their parents or when being irritated by a friend on the playground. Emotionally developed children also tend to find it easier to adhere to rules and authority figures in the school environment and can tolerate some form of encouraging criticism when it comes to their school work.
Social development would refer to the way a child plays and interacts with those around them. Children are socially well developed if they can take turns, take part, give their support to others and can work alongside friends during group activities.

Simple ways to foster this area of development:

  • Teach your child about their emotions and talk about emotions
  • Rules, routine and structure at home are important
  • Healthy boundaries and consistent discipline foster emotional stability
  • Make sure your child has little tasks at home (such as packing away underwear, clearing the dinner table, etc.)
  • Have playdates on a regular basis
  • Role play and model healthy ways to handle conflict or frustration

Cognitive development
Cognitive development would refer to adequate auditory and visual perceptual skills (to process hearing and visual information correctly), language skills (to speak clearly and understand what is being said), the ability to reason, creative problem-solving, numeracy skills and abstract conceptualising skills (realisation that abstract concepts are not real things, such as colour, shapes, etc.).

Simple ways to foster this area of development:

  • Counting activities
  • Recognising numbers, shapes, colours
  • Understanding sounds and recognising letters
  • Concentration abilities of up to 20 to 30 minutes
  • Memory games
  • Writing his own name

It is important that children play enough during the earlier years in preschool so that they can gradually be introduced to more structured table-work activities during their Grade R/0 year to exercise their abilities to sit still, write and copy, concentrate and listen attentively. Free outside play, however, should still form a big part of their Grade R/0 year.

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