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School readiness and preparing for school

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Starting school is a big event in a child's life — children need a range of skills so that they will be ready to learn, and be happy at school.
  • All Australian children must start school by the time they turn 6 years of age, and most children start between the ages of 4 and 5 years.
  • Your child will use many different skills, even in their first days and weeks at school, including physical, social, emotional and communication skills.
  • If your child has special educational needs, a physical or learning disability, ask the school about what support is available.
  • Developing your child's sense of independence and building their skills will help them get ready for school.

What does 'being ready' for school mean?

Starting school is a big event in a child's life, and for their family. To get off to a good start, children need to develop a range of skills, so that they will be ready to learn well and be happy at school.

All Australian children must start school by the time they turn 6 years of age. Most children start between the ages of 4 and 5 years.

Your child will use many different skills, even in their first days and weeks at school:

  • Physical health and development: running, jumping, climbing, and playing ball, holding a pencil and turning pages in a book.
  • Practical skills: using the toilet independently and washing their hands, unpacking their lunch box and eating their lunch.
  • Social skills and concentration: sharing, taking turns, getting along with others, following rules and instructions.
  • Emotional maturity: talking with people they don't know, being able to play and share with others, and coping with being angry, sad or frustrated.
  • Language and communication skills: listening to others, speaking and expressing their thoughts clearly and understanding what the teacher says.

Why do these skills matter?

At school, your child will be expected to:

  • separate from you without being upset
  • wait patiently for attention in a large group of children
  • take turns, share and play well with other children
  • follow instructions
  • express their feelings and needs politely
  • stick with a task
  • cope with frustration

If your child is not able to do these tasks, they might still be able to start school in a supported environment. This might involve a special needs school, or a mainstream school with extra support.

If your child has special educational needs, a physical or learning disability, ask the school about what support is available. In some schools, the support team may include your child's teacher, education assistant, principal, school psychologist, medical doctors, or other specialist service providers.

Do children need to know their ABC or how to count to start school?

No — your child will go to school to learn these skills. It helps if your child shows an interest in letters and words and begins to write some of the letters in their name. They don't need to know the alphabet (ABC).

It helps if your child can talk about their age and recognise and write some numbers. They don't need to be able to chant a set of numbers.

School can teach your child literacy (how to read and write) and numeracy (knowing numbers and how to do maths). However, you can support their emotional wellbeing and develop the social skills they need. This will help them to learn well in the school classroom.

Making an informed decision

There are things you can do to help your child enjoy school and thrive in a challenging environment:

  • Watch how your child copes in different situations, and teach them skills to work out how to manage by themselves.
  • Ask your child's teacher at day care or preschool how they cope in difficult social or learning situations, and what skills they need to work on.
  • Talk to early childhood staff at your chosen school about how they plan to meet your child's needs.
  • If your child has a physical or learning disability or other special needs, check how the school plans to include them in the learning program.

How do I know if my child is ready for school?

Making the decision to send your child to school is a big step. Whatever you decide, family, friends or even strangers might question your decision. If you've thought it through, and taken advice from experts, and thought about your own family situation, then that's the best you can do.

Trust yourself — you know your child best. You've thought about what is best for your child and acted on it. Once you've made your decision, work with your child to help them get ready for school, build their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

How can I get my child ready for school?

Developing your child's sense of independence is an important part of getting them ready to go to school.

You can build your child's skills, and help them get ready for school:

  • Show them what going to school will be like — give your child practice preparing for a school day, and even travelling to and from the school.
  • Establish routines for bed time and morning time, as well as healthy eating habits.
  • Make sure they can go to the toilet independently, including hand washing.
  • Teach them to put on their own clothes, including how to do up buttons and velcro fasteners.
  • Involve them in packing their lunch box or bag for a family trip.
  • Give them responsibility for household tasks, such as feeding a pet or setting the table.
  • Take them to the new school to play on the equipment, and to show them the classroom and toilets.

How can I help my child prepare socially for school?

You can help your child develop social confidence:

  • Take them to meet their new teacher and other children who will be with them at school.
  • Have play dates with other children, so your child can learn social skills, such as sharing toys and attention.
  • Encourage them to join a game with other children, so they practice waiting while others have their turn.
  • Model how to deal with disagreements and stay friends.
  • Gradually extend your child's ability to stick with and finish a task, giving specific, positive feedback. For example, you can say, 'You spent ages putting away your toys, you must feel pleased with your work'.
  • Reassure your child that they can deal with challenges and that you and their new teacher are available to help, if needed.

How can I help my child in the first weeks of school?

Once your child starts school, build strong relationships with their teacher and other staff. Ask the staff about the best way to communicate with them, so you understand their expectations. This way if problems arise, you know how to reach out to work together to find solutions.

Starting school is tiring for a young child, and some children find it overwhelming.

If your child becomes tearful, or has recurring tummy or headaches, ask gently if anything is wrong. If the problem doesn't go away, discuss your concerns with the teacher. Ask how your child is going at school, and plan strategies together to ease your child into school.

As a team, you and the school staff can ensure that your child has a happy start to a lifetime of learning.

Resources and support

For more information and support visit Is your child ready for big school?

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023


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