All children as they grow reach certain ‘developmental’ milestones – these are the skills and competencies a child reaches within a particular time frame. There are the obvious signs such as physical growth in height and weight, but also include social development such as talking, playing and interacting with other children and adults.
Each child is an individual and may meet developmental milestones a little earlier or later than his peers. However, there are definitely blocks of time when most children will meet a milestone. The milestones, or guidelines, indicate an age range when children should attain certain abilities, such as walking or talking.
About 30 years ago, the developmental milestones were very narrow guidelines. For example, they would state that by the age of three children should be able to hop on one leg. The milestones generally give an age range.
If children do not achieve milestones by the correct age, then parents should speak to their children’s teacher or consider seeking an opinion from a health care professional. For example, children walk between the ages of 12 and 18 months. So if a child is not walking by 18 months then parents might seek a medical opinion to determine why.
Three factors influence how quickly children achieve developmental milestones. These are exposure, environment and biology.
Developmental milestones are considered in a range of areas, including fine and gross motor skills. Fine skills involve small movements such as drawing and cutting. Gross skills are large movements, such as running and jumping. Other developmental milestones cover talking, toileting and social competency.
It is possible to accelerate the attainment of milestones though skills exposure and the environment children are placed in. However, skills development will always be limited by human biology and genetics.
Exposure means the degree of a child’s experience in something. One example is a child who has never played ball games. They will be less competent at catching and throwing than their peers because they have had no practice at it.
Another example is that, generally children start talking in basic sentences somewhere between two and three years old. However, a child who has never been read to or sung to may lag behind in the development of language skills. It follows that the development of language and literacy skills are closely related to vision and hearing. Children can’t know something if they’ve never been exposed to it, or have difficulty hearing or seeing it.
Undetected hearing and vision problems can significantly damage the acquisition of language, speech and literacy. Maternal health nurses screen children for hearing and eyesight impairments. However, children can develop hearing and sight loss at later ages, due to a range of factors.
The Optometrists Association Australia says that 60 per cent of all children who are ‘problem learners’ have been found to suffer from vision problems. It recommends that children have a full eye examination with an optometrist before starting school.
Signs that your child may have a hearing problem include language delays, extreme frustration and ‘misbehaviour’. Vision problems may be indicated by headaches, sore eyes, squinting, poor hand eye coordination or problems reading. If you suspect that your child may have a problem in this area it is important to seek medical advice.
Children also need an appropriate environment in which to develop skills. Obviously a loving, caring and safe environment will be more inducive to skills development. In the final year before children reach the age of formal schooling, developmental milestones are helpful to determine if a child needs extra help in a particular area, because being the right age for school doesn’t mean that a child is ready for school.
Kindergarten children may be a similar age, but they all have different behaviours, different talents and different interests. When considering school readiness, education expert Kathy Walker is most concerned with social milestones. Kathy is a qualified teacher and psychologist who runs Early Life Foundations.
The not-for-profit research organisation provides support services for children’s education. ‘It’s the emotional and social aspect of maturity that you should consider, rather than academic achievements,’ says Kathy. ‘Now we are a bit more open about milestones, ‘We use them as a guide to say what children should be able to achieve at a certain age.’
Being able to read or write their own name is not an essential prerequisite for school as children will learn these academic skills in the classroom. Kathy says a child’s social competence will greatly influence their ability to transition happily to school.
To thrive in the school environment children need to have a degree of independence and self-confidence. They should also be able to self-calm and self-soothe. Ideally, young school children should to be able to make friends independently and interact positively with their peers and teachers.
These skills are essential as friendship makes the learning environment safe and enjoyable; but not all children reach social milestones before they start school.
Adverse consequences for children who commence school, but don’t have the appropriate skills, vary. In the early years ‘many of these children will be constantly on a catch up treadmill. They may fall apart every afternoon after school, or just be completely exhausted. They are coping at school but only just,’ says Kathy. Although they may eventually catch up to their peers, their school experiences are likely to be uncomfortable.
If parents decide that their child needs an extra year to consolidate skills, it is best to repeat kindergarten. Once children reach primary school repeating a year places more stress on them. Children develop stronger friendships as they mature. They also become more aware that their peers are progressing in the education system while they are being left behind. If parents are not sure about their child’s school readiness, their first point of call should be their kindergarten teacher.
Elizabeth, mother of Jenny, (not their real names) has decided her daughter will repeat kindergarten after consulting with her daughter’s teachers. ‘Jenny’s teachers were really useful flies on the wall. They told me about how she acted in the kinder when I wasn’t around,’ says Elizabeth. ‘She’d trail around after the teachers because she was looking for reassurance rather than playing with the other kids.’
Elizabeth says that although Jenny will end up being one of the older rather than younger children in her class, she will be ‘given a better chance,’ by repeating. In Victoria, parents who are not sure about their child’s school readiness can ask for a second opinion through a pre-school field officer. These consultations can be organised through local councils. Alternatively, for a fee, parents can use educational consultants or psychologists for an assessment.
Certainly exposure and environment can help foster children’s skills and abilities.; the reality is that we are all born with natural talents and weaknesses. ‘We have to realise that genetically and biologically our children are predisposed to certain milestones and development aspects. But in general milestones can be impeded if there is no exposure or practice.
You need exposure, experience and the appropriate environment to develop,’ says Kathy. To ensure children have the right skills, Kathy recommends that parents err on side of caution before children start school. ‘There can be long reaching and adverse consequences for pushing children too early, while little harm can come from repeating a year of kindergarten,’ she says.
Warning signs of developmental delay
Behavioral Warning Signs
• Does not pay attention or stay focused on an activity for as long a time as other children of the same age
• Focuses on unusual objects for long periods of time; enjoys this more than interacting with others
• Avoids or rarely makes eye contact with others
• Gets unusually frustrated when trying to do simple tasks that most children of the same age can do
• Shows aggressive behaviors and acting out and appears to be very stubborn compared with other children
• Displays violent behaviors on a daily basis
• Stares into space, rocks body, or talks to self more often than other children of the same age
• Does not seek love and approval from a caregiver or parent
Gross Motor Warning Signs
• Has stiff arms and/or legs
• Has a floppy or limp body posture compared to other children of the same age
• Uses one side of body more than the other
• Has a very clumsy manner compared with other children of the same age
Vision Warning Signs
• Seems to have difficulty following objects or people with her eyes
• Rubs eyes frequently
• Turns, tilts or holds head in a strained or unusual position when trying to look at an object
• Seems to have difficulty finding or picking up small objects dropped on the floor (after the age of 12 months)
• Has difficulty focusing or making eye contact
• Closes one eye when trying to look at distant objects
• Eyes appear to be crossed or turned
• Brings objects too close to eyes to see
• One or both eyes appear abnormal in size or coloring
Hearing Warning Signs
• Talks in a very loud or very soft voice
• Seems to have difficulty responding when called from across the room, even when it is for something interesting
• Turns body so that the same ear is always turned toward sound
• Has difficulty understanding what has been said or following directions after once she has turned 3 years of age
• Doesn't startle to loud noises
• Ears appear small or deformed
• Fails to develop sounds or words that would be appropriate at her age
Children develop skills in five main areas:
Cognitive Development – the ability to learn and solve problems – what shape fits what hole size, or the function of the remote control or smart phone!
Social and Emotional Development – the ability to interact with others, including helping themselves and self-control of emotions - smiling, sharing, waiting and taking turns, following instructions.
Speech and Language Development – the ability to both understand and use language – first words, combining words into simples sentences, naming colours, answering questions and adding more information.
Fine Motor Skill Development – the ability to use small muscles, specifically their hands and fingers, to pick up small objects, hold a spoon, turn pages in a book, or use a crayon to draw.
Gross Motor Skill Development - the ability to use large muscles – crawling, walking, hopping, skipping, riding a bike.
By Emma Reeves
For more information about school readiness
‘Ready, Set, Go?’ A book about school readiness by Kathy Walker