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Is Your Three-Year-Old Really Ready for School?

by Dubai Forum
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As a new academic year approaches, parents of three-year-olds due to start FS1 find themselves asking a critical question: is my child really ready to start school, or should I keep them at nursery? We explore what school readiness really means in a UAE context and what the alternative option of FS1 at nursery may offer.

Compulsory education in the UAE begins at six-years-old (Year 2/Grade 1), however it is relatively common for children to enter a school early years environment from as young as three-years-old. Nurseries and early learning centres around the emirates also provide options for this age group, with many Dubai nurseries now licensed to accept children up to age 6.

While most parents appreciate having a variety of options available, this decision can prove to be challenging for many, with the developmental needs of children at this sensitive age ranging widely. We asked some of the UAE’s early years experts for their insights on what it means for a child to be ‘school ready’.

What is school readiness?

We asked Kerry Anne Lynch, Head of Early Years at Brighton College Al Ain, who explained that school readiness for young children is much more about social and emotional development than any academic ability, such as numerical or phonetic awareness:

“School readiness is really when a child has reached the stage in their development when they are happy and comfortable separating from parents/carers. If a child can enter the classroom and feel confident playing and being independent, and can manage certain aspects of self-care relatively independently, such as using the bathroom and their washing hands, then they are ready.”

Cheryl Wood, Early Childhood Coordinator at Fairgreen International School, agreed that a child’s social and emotional development is key here:

“There is no tick list of requirements to be ‘school ready’. Small tasks such as getting dressed in the morning, going to the bathroom independently and helping with daily tasks at home all help children to become more independent and ready to transition into a school setting.

Is nursery a better option for some three and four-year-olds?

For many children at three and four-years-old, a nursery setting may be more suitable to meet their social and emotional needs. Generally smaller in scale, nurseries can feel more home-like, as well as being able to offer more flexibility in areas such as supporting behaviour, toileting, sleep, and offering comfort and reassurance. These key factors are not to be under-estimated either; a young child is only able to benefit from their learning environment if their physiological and emotional needs are being adequately met.

While many schools aim to ensure that provision for their youngest children is still play-based and nurturing, there are undoubtedly major differences between a school and nursery environment.

We asked award winning early years educator and FS1 Leader at Home Grown Nursery, Claire Nagle, to explain more:

“A school early years environment is still ultimately a school. Children will be required to wear a uniform, they will be required to deal with personal hygiene themselves, they will have to be more independent than a nursery environment would require. The space is bigger in a school, the children will have to be able to safely walk and transition from one area of the school to another.”

Ms Nagle explained that for many children, these aspects of school life will not be a concern, with many three-year-olds being ready for this transition. The issue, she told us, is often one of unrealistic adult expectations when a child attends a school environment:

“Sometimes, because a child is in a school, and because they’re looking all grown-up in a uniform, adults can forget that they are still very young. Children of this age can become easily overwhelmed and frustrated, they may struggle to regulate their emotions, and it’s important to remember that this is normal behaviour for a three or four-year-old.”

Kerry Anne Lynch, Head of Early Years at Brighton College Al Ain, agreed that there is not one better option for all:

“An FS1 class at Brighton College Al Ain is still 100% play-based and child-centred, but there is a timetable to follow for specialist activities such as music and Arabic. This structure can present challenges for children who are less developmentally ready, whereas having these specialist classes can provide a stimulating early learning experience for other children.”

Our View

It is important to remember that a child at three or four-years-old has very valid and specific needs and although these needs will change and develop as they get older, this decision should be made based on the here and now, rather than what will likely later be the case. Positive and age-appropriate early learning experiences will impact a child’s attitudes and experiences for many years to come.

It is also important to consider that both schools and nurseries in the UAE vary enormously in their early years practice, approach, and expertise. Some nurseries will push academic-style learning very early, with an unfortunate trend of school-ification arising in some settings, and conversely, many schools are appropriately play-based in the early years. Parents are recommended to explore each option in detail before making a decision.

The most crucial considerations in making this decision for parents relate to their uniquely developing child. Rather than viewing this as choice between schools or nurseries, whichschooladvisor.com recommends focusing on what the child’s needs are, and then exploring how well short listed schools and nurseries would cater to these needs.

Considerations for parents

  • Will your child comfortably separate from you?
  • How does your child like to explore and learn?
  • Is your child still stimulated at nursery? 
  • Is your child younger or older within their year group?
  • Is your child comfortable interacting with other children of a similar age?
  • Is your child able to express their needs to an adult?
  • Is your child using the toilet independently?
  • Is your child eating independently?
  • Does your child have any additional needs?

Further Reading

For a guide to the practical difference between nurseries and schools, including fee comparisons, operating hours and transportation, read School or a Nursery for Your Three-Year-Old? 

Our guide to age requirements in UAE schools may provide some clarity as parents try to understand varying terminologies and curricula. 

Putting together a short list of schools and nurseries? We’re here to help:

10 Best Nurseries in Dubai 

Outstanding Nurseries in Abu Dhabi

Best Schools in Dubai, and Why? 

Best Schools in Abu Dhabi, and Why?


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