What's the best age for children to start school?

In Abu Dhabi the legal preschool admission age is being raised from three years to four years for the 2014-2015 school year. Here, education experts consider the implications of this.

Mariam Srour, the director of Humpty Dumpty nurseries in Khalifa City A, Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
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The increase in admission ages has been brought in to fix a discrepancy between government and private schools, which respectively accept children into preschool at the age of 3 years and six months, and 3 years only. "The raise in admission age means that all nurseries, schools and eventually universities will be in sync," explains Diana Wardeh, the director of the Teddy Bear Nursery in Abu Dhabi (www.teddybearnursery.net).

While the changes might be purely for administrative reasons, many parents are wondering what effect this will have on their offspring. Will they miss out by starting preschool potentially a whole year later? Or will children benefit from having more time at home, or in a day care setting such as a nursery, where there is a less structured day without such a strong focus on education?

This issue isn't just a concern in the UAE; there is global controversy surrounding the appropriate age for a child to start preschool. Worldwide admission ages vary vastly from 2 years in France, to 3 years in the United Kingdom, to 4 years in the Netherlands and 5 years in the US.

"Ultimately, studies show that the outcome in later years among all children entering school at different ages has no significant effect on their developmental and academic progress," says Mariam Srour, the nursery director at Humpty Dumpty Nursery, Abu Dhabi and Khalifa City A (www.humptynursery.com). "In Abu Dhabi, however, as most education is primarily private, 3-year-olds are frequently assessed for entry to ensure a smooth transition into the school if their application were successful."

If your child hasn't reached preschool age, you're probably wondering what the assessments look for. "Socially, we expect children to be able to share, interact and cooperate with the other children. They also should be able to wait their turn, sit for certain periods of time and follow rules and procedures," explains Manon Tanguay, director of The Canadian Preschool LLC, Sharjah, (www.canadianpreschool.com).

"Academically, they should have some basic knowledge of things like shapes, colours, letters and numbers. Emotionally, they need to be ready to be away from their parents and to deal with some level of stress due to their new environment."

As most parents will recognise, preschool can be quite a leap for small children, which is why a large number of education experts believe increasing the preschool admission age by a year is a good thing. "I think it will benefit the majority of children because they will have the chance to develop their social, communication and language skills before they start preschool, meaning they are more confident and independent when they do make that move," says Srour.

Ezette Grauf, the director of education at the childcare development company Bidayaat (www.bidayaat.com), agrees. "The advantage of raising the age of school entry to 4 years is that it gives children time to develop, it allows them longer to be considered 'normal' and not 'behind'. As soon as children enter school, parents start to compare, but so much of children's learning is related to readiness and opportunity, learning styles and strengths and challenges. Given more time, most children will reach their potential before they face the more challenging environment of school."

Indeed, some experts believe that it would be better for children to start preschool even later. "Research shows that the ideal age to start all-day care [meaning approximately 9am-3pm] is actually not until at least 4, if not 5, years old. That's because children who are in preschool all day have heightened levels of stress hormones by the afternoon," says Dr Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist in the US.

While most experts agree that it's a good idea to raise the admission age, there could be some casualties. "Some families may not be aware of their own importance in their child's learning. In such families, children without preschool experience may miss out on all the important social and academic opportunities, which provide a strong foundation for life," explains Grauf. "They may not have books read to them, may not have siblings or friends to engage with to develop their communication and social skills and may not have challenged themselves with unfamiliar experiences. This means at age 4, they will then be further disadvantaged in their development than their peers."

Ultimately, every child, family and home is different and it's up to parents to decide whether their child is ready to start preschool. However, there are some clear indicators. If your child seems eager to learn new things and explore, he isn't getting enough stimulation at home or day care, or if he seems ready to broaden his social horizons and interact with other children, chances are it's the perfect time to start school. It can be hard to let go, but the benefits for your child will be immeasurable.

Day care dilemmas for working parents

For many parents, staying at home is simply not an option and they have to place their children in day care from a young age.

"Where young children need to be away from home and cared for by others, choose your caregivers carefully," advises Grauf. "Children between the age of 1 and 2 years can be stressed by large groups and the lack of one on one attention."

To remedy this, it's important to try to give your child some undivided attention in the evening and at weekends. "The blueprint for children's attachment styles with their primary caregivers is laid down between the ages of birth to 15 months," explains Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hridubai.com). "Therefore, it is imperative that children are met with unconditional physical and emotional affection when they are reunited with their parents at the end of a long day away."

If you're not sure what to look for when considering day care, Grauf offers the following advice: "The most effective early years' curriculum is one that guides social interaction, communication skills, as well as experiential learning."

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