Dr. Justin Coulson: What To Do If My Child Isn’t Ready for School?

Some children were born ready for school. From the moment they start walking, they are ready to wave goodbye to you and walk straight into that classroom. Other children may take a little bit of time to be convinced that school is a safe and fun space, even if you’re not there with them.

Many parents are concerned their little one isn’t ready for school, even though, technically, the Australian schooling system says they are at the right age to be ready. I was one of them.

That’s why we at Mum Central asked one of the leading parenting experts, Dr. Justin Coulson, to share his advice for any parents who may be wondering how to know if their child is ready for school. And what do you do if you don’t think they are?

Here’s what Dr Coulson had to say: 

Let’s start with the basics.

Signs of school readiness 

“Here’s what you need to know:

Your child is ready for school when they are able to follow a couple of basic instructions at once, sit still and concentrate for reasonable periods (the timeframe depends on the task), and use the toilet appropriately.

They need to know how to communicate their needs, engage socially in appropriate ways with others, and have a handle on their emotions and behaviours in most typical circumstances.

school readiness
Source: Adobe Stock

But be aware… most kids in their first year of school will struggle with most or all of these things at least some of the time. Their development and maturity will be a big part of this. But so too will their state of well-being. How tired are they? How much stress is there at home (or at school)?

Kids who are delighted to socialise, enjoy trying new things, are curious about their world and want to explore, tend to step into school life well. Extraversion is a strong predictor of initial school success.

What about signs a child is not ready for school? 

In the wake of COVID, more parents are describing their child’s inability to separate from them. To step confidently into school life, this separation anxiety and the associated distress are also signs a child may not be ready for school.

Is my child ready for school
Source: Adobe Stock

What do to if you think your child isn’t ready?

The best people to speak to are the ones who deal with your child most. Speaking with early childhood educators who have looked after their early years at preschool will usually give you the best insights.

School readiness isn’t just about intelligence and whether a child can write their name or tie shoelaces. You might have other useful conversations with your child’s soon-to-be teacher at their new “big” school, your GP, or a psychologist (if your family/child has one).

Second opinions can be helpful, but they can also be confusing. The person who knows your child best is YOU.

Trust your gut… but remember that there’s a difference between being sensitive to a child’s development and temperament and coddling a child. Avoidance reinforces anxiety. If your child is ready, taking appropriate steps to help them navigate their entry to school is important. (If they’re not, slow it down and let them grow up a little more). 

 Should I keep my child home for another year?

Every child learns, develops, and thrives differently, so it’s important to try and avoid comparing your child’s milestones to those of others. Starting school is one of those things that parents need to follow their own path with rather than forging ahead because “that’s what you do”.

There are laws in each state that require kids to be at school (or in a homeschool program) by a certain age. My general position is that we tend to start kids at school too early and may be pushing for kids to be at school as early as they require it. Therefore, I encourage parents to hold off sending kids to school as long as they can, but at the same time to ensure they’re enjoying a healthy and happy upbringing at home.

I don’t like the term “holding your child back” in this regard. Rather, I see it as “giving children another year to grow”, and “helping them enjoy another year of just being a kid” without school schedules and pressures.

And I’m a big advocate of giving them that extra year with you so that they have the extra time to mature, develop, and become more emotionally stable and regulated.

This doesn’t mean a year of iPad and TV though. We want to enrich their days with playdates and social time, loads of nature/outside time, and as much play as possible.

From a research perspective, I’m not aware of any disadvantages children experience by having an extra year to grow before school, but the advantages of an extra year of maturity, development, emotion regulation, and social skills add up and compound through subsequent years at school.

If I decide to keep my child home for another year, do I need to homeschool them? 

Kindergarten and homeschooling are only required if your child is of the age that they should be in school.

If they’re on the cusp of a year, you can ensure you’re stimulating their learning abilities and social skills through playtime with friends, learning activities around colours and numbers and speaking.

Is my child ready for school?
Source: Bigstock

If you have the means to take your child to preschool, this is a nice alternative – and can take the pressure off parents – for some days of the week.

Dr Justin’s Top Tips for Kids Starting School 

1. Sleep

There may be nothing more important for your kids’ healthy development than getting plenty of sleep. I understand this can be a hard one, but it’s a good tip so stick with me!

Sleep hygiene – the environment in which a person sleeps – has a huge impact on mental and cognitive health, allowing the brain to rest and process everything learned throughout the day. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids might also be associated with better sleep quality1, and a bedtime routine is an easy way to manage sleep in children.

Start to wind them down a few hours before bedtime by turning off all screens, turning on their favourite lullaby, bathe them and put them in their pyjamas. All of this will cue them to understand ‘it’s time for bed’. Once in the bedroom, a black-out curtain and white noise can help to create an optimal environment for sleeping through (fingers crossed!).

2. Physical activity.

Your kids need at least one hour (but preferably two hours) outside in nature moving their bodies every day. Wiggling your baby’s body, and encouraging young children to refine their skills by using a non-dominant hand can help with brain-body coordination.

In addition, active bursts of exercise throughout the day – especially together – help improve sleep hygiene and cultivate balance and other motor skills.

Set a good example and ride together or run around the backyard playing ball with your older child, or go for walks with bub in a pram to stimulate their senses (flower smells, bright colours, forward motion, etc).

3. Diet matters.

This is the case at every age, but at this early stage of life, there are some particularly important things to mention. The brain is already at 95% of its peak size by the time a child turns six2.

Sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are central for developing healthy brains. Brain-building omega-3 essential fatty acids, known as DHA and EPA3,4,5, are crucial for the growth and function of the brain so build connection, get outside and be active, encourage sleep, and get the kids eating stuff that builds their brain, like salmon, kidney beans and blue or blackberries.

If your child doesn’t like those, supplements can be a great alternative – be sure to look for ‘DHA’.

What to read next 


Dr Justin Coulson headshot

Dr Justin Coulson is co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance where he provides expert parenting advice. He is the founder of and the Happy Families podcast. He earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Wollongong. Find out more on the website. 





1Patan MJ, et al. Nutrients 2021;13,248. nu13010248

2Lenroot RK & Giedd JN. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2006;30:718–729.

3Peters BD, et al. J Neurosci 2014;34(18):6367-6376.

4Innis SM. J Nutr 2007;137(4):855-859.

5McNamara RK, et al. Nutr Neurosci 2013;16(4):183-190.

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