At what age should a child start school?


From a developmental perspective, readiness is everything, and that's not being considered.

Are Children Better Socialized in Daycare?

Absolutely not.  The kind of socialization that occurs is confused with the construct of socializing — as becoming more social.  Do children become more social when they are sent to full-day kindergarten? Yes, in fact, they do.  They do become more social.  But this is for all the wrong reasons.

They lose their shyness, and we find in attachment that shyness is important for being able to protect existing attachments.  When they lose their shyness with peers, they become more shy around adults.  This is not a good thing.

They also tend to become peer-attached.  When they do so, they pursue contact and closeness with their peers.  We may think this is social development; in actual fact, it comes at a great cost, because when children orbit around their peers, they are pulled out of orbit around the adults who are responsible for them, and that orbit is absolutely essential for healthy development.

And thirdly, children tend to lose their separation anxiety, so we think "Oh my goodness, they're dealing much better." But they're only losing their separation anxiety because they're more attached now to their peers than their adults.  This is not a good sign.

And there's a fourth thing here.  When children are in a position of stress (and the research shows that when you are outside of your attachments, cortisol levels go sky-high and you are in a position of stress) the brain equips them for a wounding environment.  When it does, a child talks less about his hurt feelings and cries less, and we think they are becoming more resilient.

These are false indicators.  They are actually false indicators of socialization, and that's what we misinterpret.  So the research that is not informed by the developmental needs of children — and very little research is — gets these markers wrong.  You need to understand children.  If you have an intuitive parent, they know something is wrong with this.

At What Age Should a Child Start School?

Well, it's a good question.  It's an important question because it’s a question that often is not asked.  It's a question of developmental readiness.  From a developmental perspective, readiness is everything, and that's not being considered.  The idea is that the earlier the better, and the more the better, but that's not the way it is.  In development, there are ages and stages, and certain things that need to happen.

There are really three things you look for in developmental readiness.  Can the child hold onto you when apart? Are they deeply enough attached that they can preserve that sense of connection? Ideally, by five years of age, a child should have given you his heart: there should be a deep sense of emotional connection.  By that time, when we study attachment, there are at least four different ways of holding on when physically apart.  That would seem to be an age that would indicate that a child could handle more and more separation.  But if a child replaces you when apart — can't hold onto you when apart — you know that they’re not ready to handle the separation involved.

Children need enough separateness to be able to endure and hold onto themselves when with others.  That's even true for us as adults.

The second sign is whether they are able to hold onto themselves when interacting with peers — can they handle social interaction.  If a child goes to school or plays with peers and comes home with somebody else's favorite color, somebody else's laugh, or taste in clothes, then obviously there has not been enough individuality to develop.  We forget this part.  Children need enough separateness to be able to endure and hold onto themselves when with others.  That's even true for us as adults.  So that's important.

Thirdly, children need to be ready to be able to learn from teachers they're not attached to.  When we look at these things, it becomes quite obvious that children were meant to be taught by those they're attached to — meant to stay inside the village of attachment until there's some fruit of that attachment process.  And part of the fruit, part of the growing edges, become the learning edges that are necessary to benefit from school: curiosity when facing the unknown, sadness when facing disappointment, because that allows us to learn from our mistakes, and mixed feelings when there is inner conflict, and this doesn't even begin to develop until five, six or seven years of age.  These are absolutely required for a child to benefit from school.  If this isn't there, a child is not ready.  And that's why even so many adolescents are not benefiting from school.  There are so many there that are falling through the cracks.  And they can only learn from those that they are attached to.

Those are the three indicators of developmental readiness that would totally transform our understanding of when to send a child to school.

Why the Push for "Early Learning" in Public Policy?

That's a really good question.  I don't really know.  We've never known more about developmental science.  Neural science is all developmental.  We don't have the theorists putting the pieces together, and that's unfortunate.  Sometimes I feel a little like a lone wolf in this whole area of putting the pieces together.

Unfortunately, North America took a huge swing to the behavioral approach, to the learning theory approach.  This was in the sixties and seventies, and it eclipsed the developmental approach.  At the same time, the developmental approach, academically, was hijacked by some who reduced it to an age and stage theory, and it was dismissed academically.  So our universities basically threw it out and moved with the learning theory approach, so this is only being taught in some of the Ivy League universities — Howard Gardner, for instance, for those who are familiar with the academics in Harvard and so on; some leading lights, but their voices are not being heard.  It used to be the dominant approach in Europe, but they too are beginning to follow the American way, which is very sad.

So the developmental approach has been sidelined, so to speak.  There are very few of us who are articulating it.  Yet it is the voice of the most responsible science.




Gordon Neufeld. "At what age should a child start school?" The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (December 13, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada conducts, compiles and presents the latest and most accurate research to ensure that marriage and family-friendly policy are foremost in the minds of Canada's decision makers.


Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience with children and youth and those responsible for them. A foremost authority on child development, Dr. Neufeld is an international speaker, a bestselling author (Hold On To Your Kids) and a leading interpreter of the developmental paradigm. Dr. Neufeld has a widespread reputation for making sense of complex problems and for opening doors for change. While formerly involved in university teaching and private practice, he now devotes his time to teaching and training others, including educators and helping professionals. His Neufeld Institute is now a world-wide charitable organization devoted to applying developmental science to the task of raising children. Dr. Neufeld appears regularly on radio and television. He is a father of five and a grandfather to five.

Copyright © 2013 The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

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