Help, the school wants to hold my Grade R child back! What can I do?

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Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash
Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

The first day of 'big school' is a momentous occasion.

The cute uniform, the huge school bag, the nervous excitement and of course the doorstep 'first day of school' photoshoot...

But before this special day comes years of childhood development and learning, so that once they step into the Grade one classroom the child is ready to learn alongside their peers at the same pace. 

To ensure this, Grade R classes sometimes conduct school readiness assessments, and based on the findings will recommend if a child is ready, needs help or should be held back a year. 

Often, around this time of year, Parent24 recieves questions from worried parents who have been told their child doesn't quite meet the requirements, asking what they can do about it, and if the school can legally hold their child back.

We spoke to Rachel Carey, a children's occupational therapist based in Ballito, Kwa-Zulu Natal, to find out more about your rights  in this regard, and how you can help your child prepare for big school. 

Not a standard procedure 

To start, she clarifies that school readiness assessments are by no means a standard procedure and a prerequisite for attending grade 1.

They are normally done to look at the needs of a child so that the correct support can be given, she explains.

Some independent schools will perform assessments as standard practice for all children but for the most part, formal school readiness assessments are only done when there are some concerns regarding a specific child.

"As a therapist, I would highlight the need for assessment for any child who is struggling emotionally or with speech and language as these two areas of development are very difficult to remediate in the classroom and if not supported sufficiently, it can be quite detrimental to the child," Carey tells us.

Grade R to One

We asked her why the leap between Grade R and Grade 1 is so wide and she explained that this is due to the grade one classroom being a lot more structured than the grade R classroom.

"Children are expected to follow the transitions of the day more rigidly.  They are asked to sit at a desk for longer periods and there is far less time for free play,"  she says.

The shift from learning through play to more organised learning places emphasis on cognitive and perceptual skills and less on sensory learning, making it more abstract for children.

"If supported properly, with the increasing maturity of the child, these should be changes that the child is ready to and can make but," she warns, "it can take a period of transition and children often need help adjusting to the different environment." 

Can they hold the child back?

Carey stresses that the decision to hold a child back should always be made as a team around the child - with teachers, parents and any other professionals involved being consulted.

On the whole, school readiness assessments should be more about planning the support that the child will need than to try to exclude children who may need more support.

"Schools can and may recommend that a child repeat grade R before admission but ultimately it is the choice of the parent to hold the child back,"  she explains. 

Legally, if the child is of the correct age, the parent can ask for the child to be admitted to grade 1.

Help is at hand

If you and the school determine that the child needs assistance, there are various options available.

"What schools offer is very varied depending on the school that your child attends. Schools with academic support and aligned with therapists and educational psychologists will be able to offer your child the most support if they are having difficulty,"  Carey says.

Academic support could be in the form of individual or small group sessions or even smaller class sizes and very often therapies are not included in the school fees and come at an additional cost.

"There is no reason that you need to use the therapists who come into the school, and can take the child to any health professional that you would like," she explains.

Carey adds that the advantage of using the therapists in school is that they are then more closely linked to the teachers and so, in theory, the support can be more coordinated and holistic.

Parental involvement 

The school should always welcome the parent's involvement and assistance, Carey says.

The support around the child is at its best when teachers, parents and other professionals involved work together as a team.

"That being said, therapists are trained in very specific assessment and intervention for your child and although they can recommend a home programme of activities for parents to carry out, it is unlikely that parents will be able to properly remediate the difficulties themselves," she says.

While it is not always possible, Carey suggests parents consider referral recommendations that teachers make as early as possible as early intervention can make far more significant positive changes for the child.

"The parent is never obligated to take their child for assessment or therapy and has every right to refuse to if they do not feel it is in the best interests of the child. That being said, if there are concerns in the classroom, I strongly recommend assessment as early as possible," she adds. 

Don't wait to fail

The readiness assessment should give some idea of where the child's difficulties are, and then measures should be put in place to support that child going forwards as best as possible.

"Teachers are well trained to identify where there are scholastic difficulties and have strategies for supporting weaker children,"  Carey reassures, but if the difficulties are developmental or emotional, it is important that the child is receiving the appropriate additional support.

A child that does not receive the support they need will be being set up for failure. It is not fair to expect the child to perform in a way they are not developmentally ready to and asking them to do this is really starting off their schooling career on the wrong foot, she tells us.

Carey explains that as therapists, "we always say, start with more support and remove support as the child is ready rather than waiting for the child to flounder and fail and then trying to fix the problem." 

Repeated failure at school from such a young age can have detrimental effects on the child's self-esteem which can filter into all aspects of life and be enduring through life. 

What can we expect from therapy?

Therapy and support should always be needs-led as much as possible and so will look different for different children depending on the level of support that they need.

"Some children may benefit from adaptations in the classroom and a home programme, others may need weekly or even twice weekly sessions with a therapist," Carey says.

Most schools out-source their therapy and so the rates for sessions will be variable depending on the therapist being seen.

Therapists do however work within professional guidelines for charging and if your medical aid scheme supports it, some or all of the cost may be claimed back.

Group sessions can be very beneficial for some children if these are offered at the school and are less cost and time intensive, she adds.

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