School readiness


Guidelines on how to tell if your child is ready for school. In South Africa, a child can either enter Primary school when they are 5 years old, providing they turn 6 by the end of June otherwise they have to enter school the year they turn 7. If you are unsure whether your child is ready or not then it is advisable to have a comprehensive school readiness test done. However, the following article should provide you with further insight.

 The most common question involved in the assessment of young children is whether the child is developing normally. “Is this child showing the signs of development one might normally expect at this age?” This question of normal development is a worrying one for many parents. However, this area is a potential minefield as a child may be developmentally slow in some areas but advanced in others, alternatively a child may slow down in development and then catch up very quickly subsequently. Another problem is that the conditions within which the child is developing may change, leading to a slowing down or speeding up of the developmental process. Clearly, children’s development in the early years is fluid and adaptable, leading to accommodation for a wide range of variation within the span of normal development.

Choosing the right school for your child and in the appropriate education programme is one of the main reasons children are assessed and this requires the social and emotional development of the child to be measured. The whole child must be observed, making the observations multi-dimensional, taking into consideration the child’s social, emotional, physical, intellectual and language development

As far back as 1977, school readiness was defined as a broad term, which encompassed three aspects of development, namely: school maturity, social maturity and emotional maturity. A child can be considered as school ready when he or she can meet the formal demands of school, more specifically, when he or she can cope with the school environment physically, perceptually, socially and emotionally as well as academically, without undue stress. Today, psychologists and school teachers are concerned with the general, social and emotional development of children as they enter into the school system.

Readiness for school or learning is influenced by a number of factors, such as, the child’s ability to concentrate and pay attention as well as his or her motivation to learn. The child’s health and nutritional status is also a determining feature. The environment in which the child grows up will give him or her particular advantages or disadvantages when it comes to school learning.

It must be noted that according to the learning readiness view, the development of the child is an ongoing process that begins when the child is born, facilitating the child’s ability to learn new skills, knowledge, information or behaviour. In other words, readiness is a construct used to determine who will fail at school and who will succeed, based on the presence of certain behaviours, skills, characteristics and knowledge that are considered as prerequisites to the mastery of information to be taught. Remember that a child is always ready to learn, in fact is born ready to learn, but whether or not they will cope with the learning and teaching arrangement in a school setting is where the concern arises.

The terms school readiness and school maturity must not be confused either. School maturity is whether or not the child has reached a level of maturity where they are ready for formal teaching of reading, writing and numeracy. This level is usually reached around age 6 and because it relies on biological factors it cannot be hastened. However, having reached this level of maturity is no guarantee that a child will be able to cope with the demands of school and this is where school readiness enters the picture.

School readiness considers the intellectual, social and emotional maturity levels of a child and while maturity cannot be influenced by external factors, school readiness can be encouraged by broadening a child’s experiences and teaching him or her to make full use of his or her senses and abilities. Initially this responsibility belongs to the parents who are the child’s first source of learning but soon enough other people play a role in this - from child minder to nursery school teachers as well as siblings and friends.

There are certain stepping-stones that put into place the foundational knowledge required by children when they enter school. So what are these skills and stepping-stones that parents need to be developing in their child?


Knows nursery rhymes, has well developed expressive and receptive language, can follow instructions, can produce and understand simple and complex stories, can distinguish between and produce the different sounds of language, can put sentences together to make oneself understood, understands how to take turns in a conversation

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Sing nursery rhymes (Smile has a look and listen nursery rhyme jigsaw puzzle)
  • make up nonsense sentences to make your child laugh and encourage them to correct the sentence (the frog was riding a bike in the sky)
  • give instructions (start simple and make them more complicated)
  • talk and laugh with your child
  • tell familiar stories and also make up stories together (cut pictures out of magazines and stick them in a blank book to make own story)
  • encourage your child to talk about himself and how he feels
  • play rhyming games with real and made up words
  • tell your child what you are doing, answer their questions as accurately but age-appropriately as you can


Naming the basic colours, saying the alphabet, knows the names and sounds of letters, recognises his or her own name in writing, has print awareness (knows which way around to hold a book and that we read from left to right), has an interest in books

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Make use of colours in the environment (home and garden) when teaching your child, link colours (what colour is this? Give them time to answer, then prompt with it’s the same colour as the grass, what colour is the grass?, as they get older and know their colours, ask them what else they can think of that is the same colour
  • right his name on paper, a board, in the sand, with biscuit shapes or magnetic letters, on pizza with food, etc.
  • read to and with your child, initially follow where you are reading with your finger so they understand how we read and that what you are saying is linked to those funny marks on the page
  • encourage them to talk about pictures in books and ask them to predict what will come next in the story, play “I spy”

Cognitive skills:

Understands basic concepts such as size (bigger than and smaller than), opposites, can build jigsaw puzzles and complete sequencing cards, can pay attention and plan, has intellectual curiosity, persists on challenging tasks, knows shapes and can copy patterns (2-dimensional or 3-dimensional), understands position in space, can categorise

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Talk about the different sizes of everyday objects
  • use daily activities to discuss concepts such as wet/dry, hot/cold, bigger/smaller, etc
  • build jigsaw puzzles together (Smile’s next up and join up as well as the 4 puzzles in a box – 3, 4, 5 & 6 pieces)
  • give step by step instructions so they know how to do things, as they get older tell them what you want done and they must work out the best order to use, give them choices (2 or 3 things at first, then more – don’t give choices about non-negotiable things)
  • encourage them to ask questions, ask them questions to prevent them from merely accepting things as they ask, ask ridiculous questions to get them to expand their imagination and curiosity – what if you had 4 arms, what if we had a magic carpet, etc.
  • look for shapes every way, make them out of biscuits and bread, cut out shapes and make them into pictures
  • copy patterns with blocks, in sand, on the board, using a pegboard
  • tell them a known story in the wrong order and they must correct it
  • lay out objects or cards or pegs on pegboard, let them look at it, change the order and they must put it back how it was
  • give them a variety of different pictures that they must put into the correct groups, such as animals, food, clothes and so on
  • let them work through puzzle books (Bridging with a Smile has wonderful activities in)
  • ask questions such as: birds fly, fish …? What can we eat? What can we ride on? You see with your…?
  • Look for differences between 2 seemingly identical pictures
  • create patterns where your child has to add the next in the sequence, can be numbers, shapes, letters, colours, etc
  • encourage them to complete maze puzzles

concentration and Organisational skills:

Put a few items on a tray, cover them up and encourage your child to recall the items, create a pattern/sequence out of different coloured blocks, mix them up and ask your child to recreate it, play pairs with cards, read, read, read and ask simple questions, as a rough guide, multiply your child’s age by three to determine how many minutes they should be able to concentrate for.

Can tidy up after oneself, can put their toys away when they are finished playing

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Don’t say clean up all your toys, rather tell them to put their books away, once this is done put away the puzzles and so on, this is much less daunting for them
  • encourage them to help around the house – taking their plates to the sink, putting their clothes away
  • have a set tidy up time each day
  • have a routine in place


Can count to ten and understands the concepts of counting, sorting and grouping objects, identifies different shapes and colours, knows different times of day

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Count together - how many times do they jump, how many cars parked next to the house, how many petals on the flower, give them cherry tomatoes and encourage them to count them as you give them one at a time and then count again each time one is eaten
  • count how many arms and legs they have as you wash them, and how many fingers and toes as you dry them
  • make up rhymes about numbers or sing familiar counting nursery rhymes
  • separate blocks into different coloured piles or different size piles

Social skills:

Has learnt basic skills such as asking for things instead of just taking them, sharing and taking it in turns, can relate to adults and peers in a positive way, can listen to what other people are saying, participates in activities with other children, can play appropriately with other children, can sit quietly and listen to others

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Practice what you preach
  • remember to use please and thank you
  • set the example for how to take it in turns when speaking or doing things
  • let them see you being polite and positive to people
  • expose them to social time with other children
  • tell stories so they learn to sit, listen and pay attention
  • please don’t expect the TV to teach them this as no teacher will ever be able to match up to this constantly changing image

Physical skills:

Can use the bathroom, blow nose, wash hands, etc., can catch a ball and throw one as well, can balance on one foot for a period of time, can walk up and down stairs, can use scissors, can use pencils and crayons, can stack blocks, can hop, can use a knife and fork to eat, can cross the midline

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Set an example for bathroom hygiene (this should be a non-negotiable)
  • play together in the garden with throwing, kicking and catching balls of different sizes and textures
  • have hopping races (make sure you fall more often than they do)
  • encourage them to jump and leap in the garden
  • let them colour, draw, paint, cut out, play with play dough, ice, mix cakes, cut biscuits
  • let them mimic you crossing the midline – bend down and touch feet with opposite hands, touch left side with right hand
  • draw large figure 8’s and circles on a board or in the sand or window with both hands

Specific fine and gross motor skills:

Gross: games involving different ways of moving – hopping, crawling, skipping, rolling, etc., give sequences of movements for your child to copy, encourage time on jungle gyms or create obstacle courses at home, play hopscotch, limit TV time, balancing games, stilts,

Fine: construction toys, plastic bottles and jars with lids to screw on and off, ‘posting’ things into holes on box lids, etc,

Emotional skills:

Realises that he or she cannot always get her own way and realises the need to ask for help at times, can manage feelings of anger and frustration, can work independently, the ability to cope with criticism and failure, the ability to separate from caregiver, is able to verbally express feelings and needs, able to hold her own in a group, can postpone need for immediate gratification of her needs

What can you do to help develop these skills?

  • Parents’ focus is usually on the child’s physical and intellectual milestones and the social and emotional development is often forgotten.
  • All emotions are acceptable but not all behaviours are
  • teach them how to ask for help
  • encourage them to work by themselves sometimes
  • answer their questions and help them when they ask for it
  • give suggestions rather than commands
  • give them methods of dealing with their anger and frustration – draw an angry picture, screw it up and throw it away
  • play swing ball, hit or kick a ball against a wall, pop balloons, dance, hit cushions, have plastic bats to hit with, bash a blow up bopper with sand in the bottom
  • encourage them to make friends and provide the opportunities to do so
  • teach your child to solve her own problems
  • teach her to make choices and let her learn from the consequences of her choices.

About the author:
Melanie Hartgill - Educational Psychologist
Phone: +27 (0) 11 640 4498

Specialising in: Assessments (educational, psychological, school readiness, emotional and career), Learning Disabilities, Parenting Issues and Training and Child Development

CAPS Explained
The Four Most Common Goals of Misbehaviour