Why are we pushing children to start school so early?

Published: 31 Aug, 2023

Brainstorm Article By Eavan Rooney

Opinion: it's a widespread misconception that doing lots of seated academic work at a young age gives children an educational advantage

Parenting is a minefield of day-to-day "should I or shouldn’t I"? conundrums where you often end up with more questions than answers. One of the most difficult decisions parents face is what age to send their children to school. Many parents agonise over the dilemma, especially for families who have a child born in the first half of the year. It can be a highly emotional decision bringing about feelings of confusion, stress and overwhelm. And rightly so. These seemingly minor decisions in the early years can have hugely significant effects long term.

International evidence shows that children aged under seven benefit most from a holistic educational approach that supports their all-round physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, rather than pushing them towards academic achievement. The compulsory age for starting formal schooling in Ireland is 6 years of age, yet it is rare for parents to wait until this age, with most children starting school aged 4 or 5.

So why are we pushing children to start school so early? It's a widespread and very unfortunate misconception that doing lots of seated academic work at a young age gives children an educational advantage. Research consistently indicates that there is no educational advantage to an early school start, finding that children who are taught literacy skills from age 5 do not do better in the long run than those who start at age 7. Worse, early academic training can produce long term harm, not only academically but also in terms of social, emotional and mental health development.

A 2015 study from Stanford University found strong evidence that delaying school start for one year provided mental health benefits that last later into childhood until age 11. This allowed children to have better self-regulation and attention and less hyperactivity when they do start school.

One in four children in Ireland have an additional need, whether that is related to a learning, physical, emotional, sensory, communication or social challenge. Diagnoses of developmental delays and disorders in Ireland such as ADHD and anxiety are skyrocketing. While the reasons behind these difficulties are complex, we can’t ignore the impact of early pressure for academic achievement and wonder whether the statistics are merely coincidental.

Across the UK, there have been several campaigns about this, including Too Much Too Soon and Scotland’s Upstart project. There have also been calls from many early childhood education and developmental experts advocating for a delay in starting the formal schooling process and, instead, calling for an extension to informal, play-based preschool provision until the age of 7.

This is in line with Scandinavian countries, including Finland, whose education system consistently sits at the top of global rankings and is widely acknowledged as one of the best education systems in the world. Finnish students are the front-runners in every PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test since 2000 and 93% of Finns graduate from university. Furthermore, they are the happiest students in the world and some of the least anxious.

So how did they get it so right? Well, for one, they believe children under 7 are not ready to start school. Instead, they believe the priorities for children should be an abundance of unstructured play, outdoor time and physical activity, and creativity.

Every year of a child's life is precious, but the first five years are the most important when it comes to development. 90% of a child’s brain develops before they are 5 years old and the science is indisputable; the first five years of a child’s life provide the most critical and pivotal opportunities for a child’s brain to develop the connections they need to be happy, health, capable, successful adults.

Scientific research around neuroplasticity shows that it’s much harder for essential brain connections to be made later in life and first five years lay down fundamental and precious skills, knowledge and confidence that shape a child’s future. One major influence on how a child’s brain develops is play. Play is vital for building a healthy brain and is a critical pre-requisite to develop pathways in the brain essential for life-long learning.

The role of play in child development is deeply consequential yet often overlooked. Which begs the question: Why can’t we just… let children play? Should children age 4 or 5 be sitting quietly still in a classroom, many often having to force their bodies to conform and freeze. When we know that their nervous systems at this age are wired and driven to move, seek, explore and we know how important these rich playful sensory, motor and cognitive experiences are for their learning and development?

It's clear that a one size does not fit all in the case of a child’s readiness for school

We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively - they are intrinsically motivated to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, climb, fall, interact with others, create, invent. Are we depriving them of what they truly need at this crucial stage in the precious timeline of brain development? Are we actually causing harm?

So, when is a child ready to start formal education? Dr. Deborah MacNamara, author of Rest, Play, Grow, suggests that we should dismiss an arbitrary age for readiness and instead focus on when a child’s brain is sufficiently developed. MacNamara suggests that this typically occurs between the ages of 5 and 7, if ideal development has been allowed to take place.

It’s clear that a one size does not fit all in the case of a child’s readiness for school. What is also abundantly clear is that childhood serves a very real purpose and, If it’s rushed, there will be consequences. It’s time to pause, to take a step back and ask, what are we trying to achieve? Rather than being so preoccupied with whether we can teach a child, perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we should.