School readiness: Why children that start behind stay behind. Make sure your child is ready for school.

School readiness: Why children that start behind stay behind. Make sure your child is ready for school.

Dr Jane Williams and Dr Tessa Grigg


Making a decision about a child’s readiness for school is an important one, and parents are the people who know their children best. Like many areas of child development where there is a wide range of ages related to stages, 5 is not the magic number for all children when it comes to starting school.  Sometimes waiting six months could be the time a child needs to develop more skills, resilience and independence. They arrive better prepared and fit into the rigours of school more easily. This article considers some of the issues.

Do you know that, on average, 22% of children in Australia arrive at school with developmental vulnerabilities that have a direct effect on how well they will learn? In some school districts, the percentage is as high as 48%, and in others as low as 18%, but it is notable that ALL areas have children who are not ready for learning the day they start school. Boys have higher levels of developmental vulnerabilities (28%) than girls (15%). These percentages have not really changed in nine years and, in some areas of development, have declined (AEDC, 2016). There is a chance that the COVID-19 pandemic will also impact some children’s skill development 1


Why does this matter? Surely they will catch up?

Unfortunately, not so. Almost all children who start school behind, don’t catch up 2. You can see this reflected in the 2009 AEDC assessment, where 23.6% of children are vulnerable in more than one domain of development, and the same group of children, when tested for literacy and numeracy in Year 9, still have 20% functioning at minimum baseline or lower (NAPLAN, 2016).

And the response from schools to address this massive problem? More buildings. More money. More technology. The push-down of literacy and numeracy learning to the lowest Year levels. But nothing is working.

I just want to say here, that this is not the teacher’s fault! Children are arriving at school neurologically immature and unprepared for the challenges of more advanced learning – reading, writing and maths. The current curriculum does not allow for teachers to address the underlying neurological issues. Instead, it tries to build literacy and numeracy tasks on a neural foundation that is less than ready for learning.

The only way to resolve this is through exposing children to activities that enable those immature brain pathways to mature, and the only way to do that is through movement. Not just any movement – movement that focuses on the development of motor skills 3. 

Ok, but why would motor skill development have an effect on academic ability?

At the recent Movement and Cognition conference held at Harvard University Medical School, experts in the field of learning and movement demonstrated that motor skills really matter to how well children can learn, think and behave.

Movement is the key to learning and is fundamental to everything we do. When movement opportunities are reduced, the brains opportunity to learn and function to its potential capacity is also reduced4. Children need to move to develop their motor skills.

Motor skill development is sequential, building from the day a baby is born. It’s a step by step process as the brain matures and develops motor message pathways from the bottom up. Higher level development builds on lower level development. Higher level adaptation is more difficult if the lower levels have been compromised – ‘skill begets skill’ 5

Basically, the brain needs the first skill to be practised, remembered and then automatically occurring before the next motor skill can develop effectively. Alongside the development of motor skills, other key areas of brain development are being stimulated and readied for the challenge of academic learning. When you have good control of your body you can balance, coordinate and time movements almost exactly. This means you can control your pencil, sit still in your chair at school and attend to the task at hand, as you are not distracted by a body that does not do what you want it to do!

Movement is also very closely tied in with behaviour and the development of emotional systems in the brain. It affects executive function – the ability to plan, organise and complete tasks as well as regulate emotional responses. Children who have poor executive functioning skills struggle to cope with the everyday challenges of the classroom, the playground and of academic learning.

So how can you help your child be ready for school?

  1. Be active. Particularly focus on motor skills. Is your two-year-old jumping, your three-year-old hopping, your four-year-old marching and your five-year-old skipping along? If not, work out at what level the motor skills are, go back to that level and practise! Don’t forget to make it fun so your child is motivated to continue practising. You need to look like you are having fun too!
  2. Practise, practise, practise! Until that motor skill is refined, and only then, move onto the next level, (your child will most likely do this by themselves). If you are attending a GymbaROO centre, the home play activities are designed to help provide you with lots of activity ideas that you can do every day.
  3. Motor skill development is enhanced by stimulating the sensory systems – touch, balance, hearing and vision. These systems tell your child’s brain and body where it is in relation to other body parts and the space in the room etc. Play games that are fun and that stimulate the senses, e.g.; touch a body part and ask your child to lift it; balance in different positions – like a tree, a bird flying, a teapot pouring, etc.
  4. Allow decision making and encourage independence. Let children chose some aspects of their life e.g. what they wear, what the family meal is one night each week. Encourage independence, get them to carry their own bag, dress themselves or help with household chores.

Getting to school is not a race, and the starting time will not determine success. Readiness is also not determined by the age of the child. A child being ready for school will succeed more easily than one who is not.


  1. Stafstrom, C.E., Neurological effects of COVID‐19 in infants and children. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 2022. 64(7): p. 818-829.
  2. Brinkman, S., et al., Associations between the early development instrument at age 5, and reading and numeracy skills at ages 8, 10 and 12: A prospective linked data study. Child Indicators Research, 2013. 6(4): p. 695-708.
  3. Willoughby, M.T., Motor proficiency – not moderate to vigorous physical activity – is related to executive function skills in early childhood, in Movement and Cognition Conference. 2018: Harvard University Medical School, Boston, MA.
  4. Melillo, R., Parallels in brainstem, motor and autonomic development and their relationships to hemispheric integrative function, in Movement and Cognition Conference. 2018: Harvard University Medical School, Boston, MA.
  5. Perry, B.D. and E.P. Hambrick, The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Part of the special issue, From trauma to trust, 2008. 17(3): p. 38-43.


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