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Here’s what teachers look for when kids start school

Many parents believe teaching their child to read is the best way to get them ready to start school, but teachers generally consider it more important for children to know how to regulate their emotions, be confident in their abilities and be curious learners.

In a recent study of nearly 200 parents and teachers from schools around South Australia and the Northern Territory, literacy mostly came to mind when parents discussed how they prepared their child for school. Around 94% of parents did literacy activities three or more times a week including shared reading.

One father said:

“We’ve read to them since the day they got out of hospital basically […] so they have both had wide exposure to reading and books. Both the kids have got upwards of 200 to 300 books in their room.”

Literacy development is important in the early years and offers a host of benefits to children. A recent study found parents who read one book a day with their child are giving their child a 1.4 million-word advantage over their peers who have never been read to.

Parents were asked to indicate how many toys and learning materials their child had at home, from a checklist of 29 widely accessible items. These included balls, colouring books and building blocks.

Analysis of these answers showed the more play-based resources a child had at home, the more prepared they were for the academic demands of school. Paediatricians recommend simple toys, rather than electronic or expensive ones, as best for supporting child development.

Most parents said they engaged in unstructured play with their child, which often led to conversations and incidental learning. Parents spoke of using their child’s play time as opportunities to engage with their child’s interests and design activities around them with the goal of learning.

But there was some disparity between what parents most valued in preparing the child for school (literacy) and what teachers found most important for school-readiness.

More than 45% of teachers in this study were concerned about the child’s emotional readiness – in particular, a child’s confidence in their ability and self-regulation skills. Research from the UK also showed teachers felt academic skills weren’t as important as children being confident, independent and curious learners.

One teacher said that they can teach them to write their name, but it’s more important to have kids who can function in the classroom.

This doesn’t mean parents are failing their children; it reflects the difficulty parents face in teaching social and emotional skills.

A child who spends their preschool years in a play-based, nurturing and responsive environment, with a range of conversations, experiences, peers and resources, will likely adjust well to the demands of school.

Social connections are also important. Children should have plenty of opportunities to play with their friends.