Published: October 22, 2020

A new study supported by the Life Course Centre and undertaken by researchers at the Telethon Kids Institute at The University of Western Australia has found there is a bigger picture to consider when determining whether a child is ready to start school.

In a study published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, researchers reviewed the experiences of 4,000 families with pre-school-aged children to better understand the link between school readiness and subsequent outcomes such as reading comprehension, school attendance, and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

School readiness is an important predictor of the child’s future success and is often thought of in terms of formal assessments made at the start of a child’s education. It is broadly accepted to include capacities which will support a child at school, such as early academic ability, learning engagement, and social-emotional skills.

However, Telethon Kids researcher and Life Course Centre Research Fellow Daniel Christensen said the study had shown other factors – such as a child’s parents and family, their home environment and their local community – were just as important and should be part of the mix when working out how ready a child was for school and whether they needed extra support.

“This study has given us a rich insight into the complex factors that impact a child’s preparedness to start school, and the long-term benefits of ensuring young students are ready to learn,” Mr Christensen said. “What we found that is that school readiness is much more than the skills and capabilities that children have when they arrive at school, and that it really also includes how well families, schools, and communities can help children to transition to school.

“We looked at the child’s individual characteristics, so how they did on tests of their physical health, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, but also their family characteristics, such as parental health and stress, parenting consistency and efficacy, and whether parent-child reading was a feature of family life. We also looked at school factors such as the learning environment and the teacher-child relationship, and neighbourhood characteristics – such as the sort of social support and connection in their local community environment.”

The researchers looked at these characteristics when the child was aged 4-5 years, and then examined follow-up data to see how the child was faring academically, emotionally and behaviourally at ages 8-9 years. “Our findings confirm that while child capacities are important components of school readiness, they are not the only relevant factors that predict later outcomes,” Mr Christensen said. “We found a mix of child, parenting, school and community risks in combination was the strongest predictor of lowest reading comprehension in the third grade, and a mix of parenting risk factors was the strongest predictor of child emotional and behavioural difficulties at ages 8-9.”

Mr Christensen said the findings indicated that in determining whether a child is ‘ready for school’, the focus should shift away from the child’s capacities to a more holistic view of factors outside the child. “We need a rethink about what makes up school readiness, and whether we can collectively do a better job in supporting children and families who are falling behind,” Mr Christensen said. “We can’t just rely on a test identifying a child’s strengths and weaknesses, as this can miss some children who need different types of support. In other words, it’s really important to think about the context the child grows up in.”

He said children could do well on standardised tests but still be at higher risk for problems due to factors in their home environment. For example, the researchers found that a small group of children (around 16%) who performed well on tests in kindergarten were still at risk of lower academic achievement and emotional and behavioural difficulties by the time they were 8-9 years old. “This was due to a home environment where parents were low in parenting consistency, were uncertain about their parenting skills, and more likely to have a mental health problem,” Mr Christensen said.

Promisingly, the study found 70 per cent of pre-schoolers were well-prepared for school. These children tended to perform better in a range of areas later in primary school, including reading, comprehension, school absenteeism and emotional and behavioural difficulties. “The good news is that the majority of parents are supportive and nurturing, providing an environment which helps their child to thrive,” Mr Christensen said. “But given the fact that education is the biggest investment society makes in a child’s life, we should be striving to provide the right kind of support so that all children have a chance to thrive.”

This research was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course. The data examined in the research was collected via the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a nationwide survey following the development of 10,000 young people and their families from across Australia. Families fill out a wide-ranging survey every two years, covering topics including parenting, family, peers, education, childcare and health. The study, which has been going since 2003 and plans to follow the children involved into adulthood, helps to inform social policy and is used to identify opportunities for intervention and prevention strategies.