Expert Opinion

Potential stresses for your child

How do I know if my child is ready to start school next year?

In Australia, our little ones start school quite early. But, it’s not just about how old they are. Both a 5 and 7 year old can be equally ready (or not!) for school, regardless of their age. It comes down to their developmental level – how they’re tracking in terms of their development.

In fact, from my many years of experience, I’ve seen that what really matters are social-emotional skills. It’s wonderful if a child can read and write as they start school. However, it’s equally important that they can manage their emotions and interact positively with others. Struggles in these areas can make the school experience challenging for your child because it can result in getting in trouble or having difficulties making friends. This can leave a bit of a sour taste in your child’s mouth and we can then see a reluctance to attend.

So, the areas I see as most important to assess in deciding whether your child is school-ready include:

  • Social Skills: The ability to interact positively with peers and adults is vital. This includes sharing, taking turns, cooperating, and playing well with others.
  • Emotional Regulation: Children should have basic skills in managing their emotions. This includes understanding and expressing their feelings appropriately, and handling frustrations or disappointments without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Communication Skills: Being able to communicate (and interpret others’) needs, thoughts, and feelings effectively is key.
  • Independence: Basic self-care skills such as unwrapping their lunch and toileting independently are important.
  • Basic Academic Skills: Familiarity with numbers, letters, colours, and shapes can give children a strong start. Engaging in simple reading and counting activities can foster these skills.
  • Attention and Listening Skills: The ability to listen to instructions and stay focused on a task, even for short periods, is crucial in a classroom setting.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Encouraging children to think critically and solve simple problems helps develop cognitive flexibility and resilience.
  • Motor Skills: Fine motor skills (like holding a pencil) and gross motor skills (like running and jumping) are important for both classroom activities and playground interactions.

There’s no concrete proof suggesting an early school start offers any advantage. For those kids hovering in the uncertain zone, where parents are weighing the decision to enrol them in Prep/Kinder or wait another year, the common view is that there’s no need to hurry into school. Rather, delaying a child’s start in school to provide more time for a child’s social, intellectual, or physical development, is recommended if you’re ‘on the fence’.

 My toddler is starting school next year, what do I need to do to prepare them?

Starting primary school is a big step for both you and your child. But, there are a few things you can do to help make this transition as smooth and positive as possible.

Firstly, focus on nurturing your child’s social-emotional skills. Encourage them to play with other children in the lead-up (summer holidays are a great opportunity!), which helps in developing important social skills like sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts. Talk about emotions and appropriate ways to express them. This helps your child manage to be in the big world without you by their side – which can be pretty daunting for many littlies (and parents!).

Practising independence is also vital. Simple tasks like dressing themselves, using the toilet independently, and basic hygiene practices (like hand washing) are great starting points. One recommendation I often give parents is to practise going to public toilets and ensuring your child can lock and unlock the door independently – you’d be surprised how many littlies don’t go to the toilet in their first year of school because they are hesitant to manage the situation themselves! It also helps to encourage your child to express their needs and wants in clear language – practise this by asking your child to make their requests with family members or at restaurants etc.

Although not the most important aspect, Academic readiness is in some ways another area to consider. You can set your child up to feel more confident at school by engaging in activities that promote basic literacy and numeracy skills. This doesn’t have to be formal – think fun games, reading together, and exploring numbers in everyday life.

Finally, familiarise your child with the idea of school. Discuss what they can expect, visit the school if possible, and even drive past it as much as you can so that your child becomes familiar with the surroundings. You can also read books about starting school. Encouraging familiarity helps in easing some of your child’s anxieties and builds excitement.

Remember, every child is unique, and readiness can vary. Patience and encouragement go a long way in preparing your child for this exciting new chapter!

My partner and I are separating and we are worried about how to manage this with our toddler. What is one thing we can do to make this more successful?

Navigating through separation or divorce can be tough, not just for you but also for your little one. As a psychologist, I’ve seen the impact parental actions during this time can have on children. It’s not easy, but your approach to this transition can make a difference in your child’s emotional health.

You might have seen or heard of situations where the stress of separation leads parents to involve their kids in the conflict – it’s heartbreaking, but these actions can lead to stress, anger, or anxiety in children, affecting their relationships with both parents.

But here’s the hopeful part: the way you and your ex-partner handle conflict is the most significant factor in your child’s well-being post-separation. Children who are shielded from parental disputes are much less likely to face negative effects from the divorce. So, the focus should be on reducing conflict.

Try to keep things stable and predictable for your child across both homes. This consistency provides a sense of security and support. Remember, it’s about their long-term happiness and emotional health.

I know divorce and separation are challenging, but by prioritising your child’s well-being and working together with your ex-partner, you can create a nurturing environment for your child. Your efforts to maintain a loving, stable, and peaceful atmosphere will go a long way in helping them through this transition. Stay strong, and know that you’re doing a wonderful job for your child’s future.

How would my toddler be interpreting parental separation?

When it comes to how your toddler might be processing the divorce or separation, it’s important to remember their unique perspective. Toddlers, due to their limited cognitive abilities, can’t fully grasp what divorce means. This often leads them to feel uncertain and confused about the changes happening around them.

Your little one might start showing signs of fear of being abandoned. It’s a natural response, as their understanding of the world is still very much centred around their immediate family. Emotional neediness may increase too. They might cling more, seeking assurance and comfort in a world that feels a bit unpredictable to them.

Behavioural challenges are also common. You might notice your toddler becoming irritable, perhaps more fearful than usual. They might also display aggression or hyperactivity as a way of expressing their inner turmoil. Physical changes like disrupted sleep patterns or toileting can occur too. If they seem more upset when separated from you or another close caregiver, that’s a sign of their increased need for security.

Regression is another thing to watch for. Your toddler may revert to earlier behaviours – like thumb-sucking or bedwetting – as a way of coping with stress.

As parents, it’s crucial to provide extra love and reassurance during this time. Your consistent presence and support can make a world of difference in helping them navigate through these changes. Remember, you’re not alone in this, and it’s okay (and encouraged!) to seek support for both you and your child.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Снежана