Updated: Jul 22
Children in the UK enter the formal education system at one of the youngest ages in Europe. For many other countries formal schooling doesn’t start till six or even seven years old, while in the UK some of our children will only just have turned four when they start. Making the move to reception year at school is a big step in any child’s and family’s life and there can sometimes be confusion about what being ‘school ready’ really means.
Contrary to popular belief, being able to write their own name, count to ten and read a few words are not the important most skills children need to be ‘school ready’. This is what they go to school for! Far more important is having good social and emotional skills, being relatively independent in their own personal care and being ready and interested to learn. In this article we unpick each of these three areas and provide ideas for supporting children to be ready to enter reception full of confidence and with a desire to learn.
Good Social and emotional skills
Key for a child to make the most of the school environment and not feel overwhelmed by it, is to be able to separate from their parent and carer easily. If your child is not attending some kind of childcare setting such as a nursery, pre-school or childminder, use toddler groups, singing sessions and messy play clubs as another way for them to get used to being around other adults and children. When you visit these groups, try not to hover over your child but step back and let them gain confidence and practise interacting with other adults and children.
Beyond being able to separate, children also need the following skills:
language to communicate effectively with others
an understanding of expected levels of behaviour and ability to follow ‘rules’
being able to play with other children and take turns and share
Being an effective communicator is vitally important when making the move to school. Children need to have the language skills and the confidence to express their ideas/ask for help and to understand what is being asked of them.
Ensure children understand they can go to any teacher and/or support member of staff if they feel sad, confused or unwell. By providing opportunities for children to talk to other adults when out and about (such supermarket staff, adults at groups you attend, or even your friends) you can help your child gain confidence in talking to other adults.
Children should be able to form sentences of more than three words and the words they use should be, mostly, flowing freely. Children should have a good grasp of most speech sounds, and strangers should be able to understand what the child is saying most of the time. If a child’s language is not clear (e.g. a known adult has to translate for a stranger) and/or they are still not using free flowing sentences, then seek support from your health visitor. Ican also provide a wealth of resources and ideas to support language development.
Making time to play simple board games helps children to develop turn-taking skills. And don’t feel you must always let your child win. Being able to cope with the disappointment of losing is another key skill for life. At school, the child’s peer-group will also be out to win and are unlikely to be kind enough to let another child beat them if they can avoid it. Provide opportunities for your child to play with other children, either at play dates at friends’ houses, at toddler groups or at formal childcare settings. Help children to learn to initiate games or to ask to be included in play. Encourage them to introduce themselves to other children and ask the other child’s name. Finally, don’t be too quick to step in and resolve minor disagreements during play. Being able to negotiate with their peers and find an amicable way through is another key life skill.
Help children to understand expected levels of behaviour. Children thrive when they have clear boundaries. Help children to understand accepted behaviours and why they are needed, such as not running indoors because of trip hazards; using an inside voice because shouting hurts other people’s ears and disturbs them; tidying away toys after use so bits don’t get lost or broken and the room stays safe to play in. Make sure you give positive praise to help boost self-esteem.
Independent in their own personal care
When a child starts at school they will go from a nursery or pre-school environment with one member of staff to every eight children (or from home with even fewer children per adult) to a space where there is one teacher and one assistant for a class of around 30 children . At lunch and play times this child-to-adult ratio may be even higher, so it is vital that your child has good self-care skills.
Is your child clean and dry during the day?
Can they take themselves to the toilet independently?
Can they manage to take down and pull back up their own clothes?
Can they get onto and off the toilet on their own?
Can they wipe their own bottom?
Do they know how to use the flush?
Can they wash their hands effectively on their own?
These are all skills they will need on day one at school. Spend time practising these skills long before September, so that by the first day of school your child has mastered taking themselves to the toilet. If your child isn’t yet clean and dry yet take a look at our tips on toilet training. (But also know that, contrary to what you may have heard, school can’t refuse your child if they haven’t yet mastered the toilet see more here).
Provide enough time for children to practise self-toileting skills. Initially each trip to the toilet might take some time! Make the most of opportunities presented by visiting other bathrooms at friends’ houses or out and about, so that children to get confident with different toilet types and the different ways taps work. And don’t forget to make opportunities to practise using the toilet in any school uniform they will have to wear.
On their first day at school, make sure children are dressed in clothes they can easily manage on their own and don’t forget to show them where the toilet is.
And one extra thing if you have a boy, where possible, provide them with opportunities to see and use a urinal. If this is not possible, talk to them about how to use one (reassuring them they can still use a toilet if they would prefer) and be sure to show them the urinal AND where the toilet is on the first day. Many reception teachers can tell you stories of finding a poo in the urinal during the first weeks of September.
This is another key skill for children to have from day one at school. Imagine the frustration of seeing the playground but having to wait for an adult to help you before you can get outside to play! If children are skilled in dressing, they can maxims their time outside. Think about the following:
Can they get their coat off a hook?
Can they put it on AND do the zip/fastenings up?
Can they put their own shoes on?
How about wellington boots?
Can they manage a hat and gloves?
Again, making time to practise these skills is key. Yes, it may make getting out the house quicker if you help your child, but once at school they will need to be able to do this on their own. If your child can’t yet manage to put their coat on in the way we would as an adult, you can try the flip-over-the-head method. When choosing coats and shoes for school, consider how practical they are for children to manage on their own.Some parents choose footwear with Velcro fastenings initially.
Another key time when children benefit from independence is changing for PE. Make time to practise getting out of school uniform and into their PE kit. Think about the following:
How do they cope with buttons?
Can they get out of a jumper? How about turning it the right way around to put it back on again?
Can they get out of their school shoes and into their PE trainers?
What about socks and tights? Can they both take them off and put them back on?
As already mentioned, ratios of staff to children at lunch time can be very low, so ensuring children have the skills to be able to eat independently are key. Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to practice using cutlery, as well as sitting at a table and eating enough at each mealtime, because there won’t be an adult there to prompt them to eat.
If a child is having a packed lunch, make sure they can:
Open their lunch box
Get in to tubs and containers
Open packets, or yogurt pots/tubes
Use any cutlery they will need
Manage their drink
Put everything back into their lunch box and close it
Before they start school, regularly make up a packed lunch for your child so they can practise the skills needed. If by the time September comes there are still areas they can’t manage, see if you can come up with alternative ways for food to be stored. For example, in a Tupperware with a pull up tab rather than wrapped in cling film.
If a child is having a school lunch, they will need to be able to:
Tell the person serving what they want
Be able to carry a plate or a tray to a table
Be able to pour their own drink
Use a fork, spoon and knife effectively
Be able to clear away their plate etc once finished
Again, regularly make time for your child to practise the skills above. Get them to carry their food to the table at home and to pour drinks. When out and about, provide opportunities for children to look at food and decide what they want and then order it themselves from the person serving.
Being ready and interested to learn
The first year at school should, hopefully, still be very much play-based, so it does not mean that a child who is ready to learn must be able to sit at a desk for hours on end completing work sheets. Instead to be ready for their first year at school a child needs to be able to:
Listen to and follow simple instructions
Understand simple questions
Sit for SHORT periods of time
Complete simple tasks
Play/concentrate for short periods of time on their own
Be curious about the world around them
Provide opportunities for your child to listen to, understand and then carry out simple tasks on their own. The tasks don’t need to be ‘learning based’ - the learning is being able to think through and then carry out tasks. For example, you could ask your child to lay the table; initially they may need help to think about what they will need, where to get the items from and how to lay them on the table. However, as the child repeats the activity, they will start to be able to do the ‘thinking’ part on their own. As you practise more opportunities like this, try providing less support each time you introduce a new activity.
When supporting children to be able to sit still for short periods of time, it is important to be realistic in what is meant – children are not designed to sit still! A child of around 3 years old might manage 5-10 minutes, while a 5-year-old might manage 15. However, it is important to remember all children develop differently and that sitting still is a skill that has to be learnt just like walking and talking. If your child can’t sit for the times above don’t make it a big issue, simply provide non pressured opportunities to practise these skills.
You can help your child to learn to sit for short periods by reading books with them, carrying out fun activities such as playdough, building with construction toys, or simply sitting on the floor and talking with them. Meal and snack times are also another great part of the day to practise sitting skills. Use quiet times to help your child think about and recall what they have done during the day. Be aware, sitting still in front of a TV or on an IPad is not the same as being able to sit at other times.
As well as spending time supporting your child to learn to sit, it is just as important that they can play unsupported. As adults we can sometimes be in a child’s space too much. Allowing your child to spend time playing (safely) on their own will develop really important life skills. Provide opportunities for children to use their imagination in their play and to come up with their own games and ideas. It’s OK for a child to be bored sometimes, especially if you can use that to encourage them to use their own ideas to come up with things to entertain themselves. Not stepping in as soon as a child encounters difficulty in their play, enables them to find their own solutions and does wonders for their self-esteem.
Other ‘nice to have skills’
For many people these may be the skills they first think of when supporting their child to make the move to school. And while it can be nice for them to have some of these skills, reception is all about children learning to master these kinds of areas. If, and only if, you child is secure and comfortable with all the items above, you can look to provide them with a bit of support around holding pencils, using scissors and learning to write their own name.
However, if your child is still struggling with any of the areas above, please focus on those first.
Using scissors and correctly holding a pencil
Both require children to have strong large motor and fine motor skills. So, as well as practising things like snipping at paper and drawing people (please don’t rush to writing letters) provide lots of opportunities to strengthen arm muscles and finger muscles. Things to try include:
Getting out to the park and making use of climbing equipment and monkey bars
Using a turkey baster or medicine pipette to squirt water in the bath
Using salad tongs to pick socks off the floor and putting them in the laundry basket
Pegging clothes pegs all around the edges of a shoe box.
Recognising their name written down and knowing the sounds of the letters in their name
Provide opportunities for children to see their name written down and sound out the letter sounds of each individual letter. Help children to notice letters and words in the world around. For example, on street signs, cereal packets and shop windows. Encourage children to see if they can spot the first letter of their name. Once they have this skill, see if they can start to find other letters that make up their name. But again, please don’t rush to getting them to write their name.
Count to 10
Provide children with opportunities to count during their play, pointing to each object as they do. This helps children to really understand what 5 ‘is’, rather than just reeling out the numbers with no concept of what the quantities are. Help children to notice numbers in the world around them, for example door numbers or car number plates.
Finally, starting school is a big milestone in a child’s life (and yours as a parent), so embrace it and try to make it a fun time, rather than a scary prospect. Further resources to support your child with the move to school can be found at PACEY , Nursery World and your local children’s centre.
Found this article helpful? Why not “like” and follow our dedicated Parents' Facebook page to hear about new posts first.