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Your child has just started school – so what are you worried about?

It is an exciting time when your child starts school for the first time. Uniforms, shoes, covering books, buying pencils, crayons, textas and hats in bags are all part of the process. But for most parents, while their child may feel excited with a little bit of apprehension, mum or dad, grandma or grandpa may feel more than a bit of anxiety about their little person starting school.

😕 Will their teacher know what they want?

😕 Will the other kids be friendly?

😕 What if they can’t open their lunch box?

😕 Do kids still take each others’ recess or lunch?

😕 Who will they play with at lunchtime?

These type of questions are very common, but in my experience, by far the biggest concern parents and grandparents have about their child starting school is if their child will be able to learn to read and spell.

Concerns about what level your child is at will be a continual worry for many parents, and sometimes the worry is justified, other times it is not. So… how do you tell?

Fortunately for most children, they have had the benefit of attending either a family day care, preschool, play group or long day care setting where you as their main carer have had the chance to talk about your concerns with others. Educationalists in these centres are trained to know about children’s development. It is common if a teacher is concerned about your child starting school, they would have already discussed the situation with you. And while reading and spelling are not part of a pre-schoolers general development, there are certain pre-requisites that children develop at preschool age that then allow good development of reading and spelling skills as a school aged person.

Some kids do not go to a preschool or long day care centre, and attending school will be the first formal mixing of other kids their age on a daily basis that they will experience. Either way, no matter if your child has or has not attended some form of preschool setting, your Kindergarten teacher will be the next person to speak to. In NSW, all Kindergarten children are currently going through their assessment phase within their school, to examine where their abilities lie. The Best Start assessment gives the teachers and you as parents a view of where your child is up to with their skills in literacy, numeracy and understanding at the start of Kindergarten.

So, port of call number two, if you are worried about your child, is your Kindergarten teacher. It is best not to try to crash tackle your child’s teacher as they monitor the bus lines in the afternoon; instead phone the school and request an appointment so you and the teacher can sit down and discuss your concerns. Remember the teacher will have around 20 little new faces to get to know, so leaving the appointment a few weeks gives the teacher a chance to get to know your child, and also allows your child to settle in before you set about seeking answers to your questions. And try not to be put off by someone else’s mum stating how quickly her child learned to read and that they read 5 new books per night every night. It is great that the other child is succeeding, but do keep in mind all children develop at different rates.

What does my child need to have learned before starting school?

  1. Words – Words are in our world everywhere. This reference to words does not mean the words the child can/can’t read, but means their vocabulary – the words they use to speak, to communicate and to arrange in certain orders to make sentences when they interact. Within this heading of “words”, also lies the skill to add changes to words – puppy… puppies…..dog…..wolf…..etc
    run …running….runs….ran…jog…etc
    Using these words in sentences when speaking, is also a skill that is expected. Sentences should be at least 5 to 6 or more words long and need to make sense.
  2. Attention and focus – have an idea of what things capture your child’s attention. Many kids can attend to a child’s movie or DVD for hours…others can’t. Some will enjoy the challenge of a jigsaw puzzle, others throw the pieces after two attempts to find a spot for a piece. Some children can involve themselves in a game, or lego, or conversation for a long time, and others cannot sit still long enough to take any information in. All of us have things that we enjoy doing and so can be captivated and remain focused, and then again other things we do not enjoy may leave us day dreaming and inattentive. The trick is to see if your child can pay attention when it is needed, or if it is very difficult for them to attend in the first place.
    Encourage your child to persist with an activity for a few seconds longer than they would normally, and then the next time they attempt the activity, stretch it out again. In Kindergarten, the teacher will need more than a snippet of your child’s attention so learning can take place.
  3. Understanding of concepts and instructions – your child should be able to listen to an instruction that has at least two parts, and then go and carry it out. Of course some kids will choose not to carry out the instruction, but that is a question of compliance – not of understanding. Attention and focus are important skills that aid comprehension and understanding. You want the teachers’ instructions to sink in to your child, not “bounce off the atmosphere” without being logged on.
  4. Clear Speech – ideally your child needs to have control of enough speech sounds, so that they can make themselves understood to their teacher or friends without needing you there to interpret. Some kids simply are not able to develop their speech sounds clearly enough and still have poor clarity of speech when they start Kindergarten. Many kids I know have started Kindy with unclear speech and gone ahead in leaps and bounds; however other kids have found interacting with others too difficult, embarrassing or overwhelming and so choose not to talk much at all. This results in fewer practises of sounds (as they are talking less) and so the problem persists. There is also research evidence to show that kids who have poorly developed speech may also go on to have difficulty picking up reading and spelling. It is not a hard and fast rule, but definitely an outcome of research that is noteworthy.
  5. Books – Has your child had experience with books? Many children have and understand broadly that there are words in a story, and that characters exist that might be real or fictional. They also have an understanding that they have a “stamp” – that a group of certain letters is their “name” and while most can identify their name when written, some will still not be able to write it at the start of Kindy. Some will have also realised that “letters” represent sounds that we say, and that the sounds go in groups to form words. As a Speech Pathologist looking at rhyming skills, letter sound combinations and general knowledge about books also gives clues to a child’s readiness for school.
  6. Understanding or Comprehension – One of the last facets that I look at as a Speech Pathologist is how well the child manages socially. Do they get a joke or do they really believe that “dad hit the roof”. Can they “read” the body language and tone of others or do they carry on oblivious when they talk about a boring visit to a friend’s place within earshot of the friend? Social skills are an important part of understanding the “big picture” and if a child has difficulty reading and interpreting social language and situations, it can be very overwhelming for them. Of course, this returns us to understanding or comprehension and so the skills continue to spiral.

Of course there are many other developmental skills and levels that a Speech Pathologist will examine, and still more expected by teachers, including fine and gross motor skills, sequencing and other physical skills.

Use the information above as a guide – if you are concerned speak to your child’s teacher, or you can contact me for further information.

Two added extras that are for every child – know if your child’s hearing and vision are good for their age. It is not enough to assume that because the child passed a newborn screening for hearing 5 or 6 years ago, that their hearing is still fine. And children are often not aware if their vision is blurry – it is what they are used to and have no concept of blurry verses crystal clear vision. Make sure these two items are checked before or around the time your child starts school.

When you are trying desperately to get some detail of your child’s day from them when you collect them at the school gate, don’t be disappointed when their response to your keen “What did you do today?” is a plain “Nothing.”

Sometimes, children have so much go on in one day, that it is hard to compartmentalise it all and summarise it for you. Specific questions like “who did you sit with at lunch”, “what’s the name of your buddy?” “did you like the story your teacher read on the mat today?”… are all more specific questions that let your child focus on the detail you are seeking.

Be calm and supportive about your child starting school. Ask questions and be involved, without overwhelming your child. Meet some of the parents that you don’t already know and get to know their kids too. That way you have “insider information” about kids’ names and things they like to do. Then, when your child forgets a name but can tell you “she’s the one who is good at soccer” you know that child’s name is Amy, cause you have been chatting to Amy’s mum about soccer.
Oh, and be prepared to be replaced as Queen of your child’s world. After a few days, it is likely the Kindy teacher will have been repositioned in your spot of authority… “but Miss Williams said….”. Don’t worry, it’s all for a good cause.

It is a great step when your child starts school and they are at the starting gates to the rest of their lives. Enjoy it and support them, but if you are concerned act on your worries and schedule a meeting, nip things in the bud where ever you can.