What’s the right age for children to start school?

It depends on the child and has more to do with how well they’re prepared to function in a classroom than knowing their ABCs, says U of A educational psychologist.


As the Alberta government moves toward standardizing the age at which kids start elementary school, some educational researchers endorse the idea that delaying school entry can be beneficial for students. But a University of Alberta education professor suggests the answer really depends on the child.

“There is no right age,” said Christina Rinaldi, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology who researches children’s school readiness.

“There have been studies that have shown that there are some benefits in starting school at a later age, but over time it really depends on the individuals and how they experience that year and that transition,” she said. “I think parents stress a lot about it, but they need to think about whether it works for their family.”

Rinaldi said a child’s school readiness has less to do with knowing their numbers and ABCs than with how well they’re prepared to function in a classroom setting.

“It’s the social-emotional kind of development you’re looking for to make sure they have a positive school entry, things like [being able to adapt to] routine and structure, and being ready to share and get along with others and listen to teachers’ instructions,” she said.

“Parents don’t necessarily need to think about where the child is educationally, because they are going to school to learn so they don’t need to know everything ahead of time.”

She added that children who have prior experience of socialization in a structured setting may have had a chance to practise the skills that will make school entry easier.

“We know four- and five-year-olds, depending on their exposure to preschool or daycare or any setting with other children where there’s an adult leading, can demonstrate these skills.”

4 tips for parents to help ease their child’s transition

Rinaldi suggest four things parents can do to prepare their children for the start of school.

1. Gradually alter your child’s daily routine up to a week ahead of school

“Children really do gravitate toward routine and knowing what to expect,” Rinaldi said. “You have to consider the sleep routine, eating well—all the self-care things that are important for adults are important for kids as well.”

2. Find out whether your child already knows any classmates

Rinaldi said social connections can make the transition go more smoothly. Another idea is to try and meet the teacher before school starts.

3. Involve your child in choosing back-to-school gear

Bring your child when you do your back-to-school shopping and let them decide on things like a lunch bag or backpack. “It gives them a sense of decision-making and autonomy,” Rinaldi said.

4. Don’t pass on your stress

“Parents’ stress levels about it play into the situation because children probably feel or sense if their parents are stressed or unsure about the decision they’ve made,” she said. “Have a strategy to ease into school—you don’t need to talk about it constantly.”