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When should kids start school?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

A few years ago my wife and I were debating whether or not to send our son to kindergarten at just 2 years old like many other children here in Japan. We asked ourselves if he was really ready and what he would gain from it. Now we're facing the same decisions with our daughter. As usual, I don't want to rely on feelings alone, so I rely on the science instead.

Child starting school entering school alone hallway
Source - Midjourney

Introduction


When I was little, I attended kindergarten in Canada. In Ontario, kids can register for school in September of the year they turn 5, so I must have been 4 at the time due to my late December birthday. I don't recall being upset about it or having any traumatic experiences (I'd have to ask my mom), and despite my young age compared to the other students, I performed well academically. Years later, the government added junior kindergarten so children could begin school as young as age 3. That has always seemed excessive to me, and that hasn't changed since I became a dad. I never really looked into the evidence, however, until it came time to enroll my own child.


"We would do a much greater service to children if we focused more on making school ready for children than on making children ready for school."

In Japan, pre-school and kindergarten last for up to four years, with children starting as young as age 2. Even before we had kids, my wife and I were in agreement that we weren't going to have someone else look after our kids at such an early age if we could do it ourselves. Still, once my son was eligible for school, we had some doubts about whether keeping him home was in his best interests. I have a good job and there was no pressure for my wife to go back to work, but we worried that maybe he needed more socializing with other kids, or that he needed more stimulation than we could provide at home. Further complicating things was the fact that kindergarten is very competitive here and we needed to decide and apply many months in advance in order to secure a spot. I don't have to tell other parents how hard it is to predict what your toddler's behaviour will be like in 6-8 months. I'm still failing to predict how my kids will act in 6-8 minutes! Unable to come to a satisfying decision, It was time for me to examine the data.


When do most children start school?


By law, most children around the world are required to begin schooling at age 6, but this varies by country from 5-7 years old. Of course, many parents feel pressured to send their kids earlier than this for a variety of financial, social, or academic reasons. In America, more than half of eligible 4-year-olds attend pre-school programs. Meanwhile, in Finland, students generally don't begin school until age 7, considered quite late by most countries' standards.


Does starting early give students an advantage?


That's the theory, according to proponents of early-start programs. Several studies do indicate that pre-school programs improve social emotional development, increase school readiness, and raise academic performance. However, it has also been shown by several studies that those gains are reduced as students grow older, sometimes disappearing altogether by the time kids reach third grade. And regarding Finland, their students achieve results on par with the best students in Asia who enroll much earlier than age 7. The OECD's programme for international student assessment (PISA), based on tests taken by 15-year-old students worldwide, consistently supports this. Even among Finnish students there are varying degrees of success, however. One study indicated that children in Finland born just after the new year are significantly more likely to be accepted to and graduate from secondary school, a trend that was curiously more pronounced among girls, for whatever reason.


"All of this points to the fact that a confident, logical, well-supported child will generally be successful in school regardless of their age."

A study from the UK found that kids with a full year of reception (for 4 and 5 year-olds) did better in KS1 (age 6-8) than kids who did not participate in a year of reception education. Tellingly, however, older students within the same KS1 group did better than younger ones, regardless of whether or not they had completed a year of primary school. Thus starting early was less important than simply being older. This trend is well documented in many of the studies I've linked here. There are two theories about why this might be, and both are pretty much what you'd expect. Either older students are more cognitively advanced than their younger peers, or they've just been around longer and have had more time to acquire information. Regardless of which theory has more weight, both explanations make sense given that the academic disparity between the two groups diminishes with age. After all, there's a much larger difference between 4 and 5-year-olds than there is between 16 and 15-year-olds.


Problems with the academic achievement model


Examining the literature on school readiness reveals a major shortcoming - Most studies only look at current and future academic achievement as a measure of school readiness while failing to take into account less-quantifiable factors such as the child's happiness, creativity, and sense of well-being. This makes sense from a scientific perspective because it's simply too difficult to craft a study that can measure such subjective variables, but that doesn't make them less important. PISA will attempt to measure creativity during their 2022 testing session, so that's a positive development at least. It will be interesting to see if academically inclined countries also score highly on creativity.


Even under the broad umbrella of what constitutes 'academic achievement', there are a wide range of standards. Some studies use high school graduation rates as a measure of school success (a pretty low bar...), while others compare standardized test results at various ages. In either case, it's a pretty one-dimensional view of what matters to students, parents, and teachers.


"...decide when to send your child to school based on the emotional well-being of everyone involved (including you), not on your hopes for academic success."

Some researchers have a different approach to answer the question of when kids should start school - just ask the kids! Educational psychologists who favour this strategy assert that children are capable communicators and experts in matters concerning their own lives. One small-scale study asked Australian children attending kindergarten to describe their relationship with school. They answered verbally and in drawings, which are both cute and illuminating ("I don't like sandpit. I get sand in my shoes sometimes."). Unsurprisingly, about 50% of the children indicated that play was important to them. As for negative associations, play also topped the list, mostly in reference to things that were scary, too challenging, and so on. Just behind play on the list of dislikes was schoolwork, something kindergarten children should not even be aware of, if you ask me. For this reason, some early childhood programs actively avoid formal teaching, choosing instead to focus on passive skill development and play. For example, Montessori education, developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900's, involves a broad learning approach that supports children's emotional and intellectual development, rather than insisting on more traditional skills like reading and solving math problems.


What kind of child does well in school?

Plenty of recent studies have tried to use non-cognitive factors to predict academic outcomes. Among those, some of the strongest indicators are confidence and self-efficacy (believing in yourself). A 2010 meta-analysis by Lee and Shute analyzed 600 studies published between 1950 and 2010, examining more than 60 non-cognitive variables in K-12 students for their predictive capacity. They found that only 12 traits have a statistically significant basis for predicting academic achievement. These characteristics are grouped into four broad categories which include student engagement, learning strategies, school climate, and social-familial influences. All of this points to the fact that a confident, logical, well-supported child will generally be successful in school regardless of their age.


Another report outlines three areas of development that children need in order to be successful at school. These are: intellectual skills, a motivation to learn, and strong social-emotional support. Many children start kindergarten lacking in one or more areas and suffer as a result. This is particularly true for students with special needs, even though these can be subtle and may be as-yet undetected, even by their caregivers.


Conclusion


This extensive resource from the Australian board of education provides some excellent strategies and advice on how kids and parents can successfully transition to school routines. It contains some excellent pearls of wisdom as well, including this one from Peters (2010): "almost any child is at risk of making a poor or less successful transition if their individual characteristics are incompatible with the features of the environment they encounter". Essentially, some kids simply aren't as ready for school as their peers. Importantly, the authors also point out that some children may be ready to learn, but not ready for school.


"...children are capable communicators and experts in matters concerning their own lives."

Similarly, Deborah Stipek, a professor of education at Stanford and the author of this study on when children are ready for school sums this whole argument up best when she says, "We would do a much greater service to children if we focused more on making school ready for children than on making children ready for school."


As for us, we decided to delay our son's entry into school until after he turned 3, and even then, I'm not convinced he was totally prepared. We also made sure that he attended a play-based kindergarten that did not focus on academics.


None of these decisions were easy, of course, even with the scientific evidence to back them. Each child is just so unique and that has to factor into your decision-making process. Just rest assured that if you are worried about your child falling behind academically if they don't enroll before the mandatory age, the research doesn't support it. True, your child may start school a little behind their peers initially, but they will soon catch up.


The bottom line is this: decide when to send your child to school based on the emotional well-being of everyone involved (including you), not on your hopes for academic success.


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