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Why Knowing Their ABCs and 123s Will NOT Prepare a Child for School

school readinessUp until a few years ago being ‘ready for school’, meant knowing your letters, numbers, shapes and colours. We thought of ‘school readiness’ in terms of WHAT children needed to KNOW and be able to DO to be successful learners at school. As a teacher, I know that we tended to focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills. For example, could a child identify letter names and sounds and count to 10?

For many schools and parents, this is still the case.

However, in the past three or so years, there has been a significant shift in what the research tells us in terms of being ‘ready for school’. Thanks to advances in educational research and neuroscience, we now know more than ever about what young children need to be successful learners. AND IT ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK! Even as a teacher and children’s media researcher, this information startled me. This is some of the information I share in the Parent Seminar ‘School Readiness in a Digital Age: More Than ABCs and 123s’.

Whilst some CONTENT and SKILL KNOWLEDGE is helpful, it is not the key determining factor to ensure your child learns effectively when they enter school.

 So what do children need to be successful learners at school and beyond?

It certainly isn’t reciting your ABCs or 123s. It isn’t the ability to hold a pencil or knowing which way to hold a book (but ask any Kindergarten teacher and they will tell you these skills are still important). It is EXECTIVE FUNCTION skills.

Executive Function skills are a collection of generic skills that ensure that children can learn. They are the ‘HOW’ of learning (not WHAT children need to learn). They are developed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and work in concert with other areas of the brain too. Whilst there are differing lists of skills that comprise ‘Executive Function’, generally Executive Function involves the following:


(1.) Self-control, (2.) Focus,  (3.) Remembering, (4.) Communicating,  (5.) Planning and (6.) Embracing challenge.

A child’s executive function skills have been compared to an ‘air traffic control system’. It is the way through which a child processes the world and then uses this information to learn.

The video below provides a simple summary of  executive function:


What is interesting to note, is that whilst Executive Function skills aren’t fully developed until our early 20s (later for males too), they peak in their maturation between ages 4 and 6. This is typically the time that children are in preschool or commencing formal schooling. So it is imperative that children develop executive function skills early in life.

What’s one SIMPLE thing I can do to help my preschooler become ready for school?

One of the strongest and most reliable predictors of a child’s subsequent academic success relates to their capacity for ‘self-control’ (also known as ‘inhibitory control’ or ‘impulse control’). We have a significant body of longitudinal research that links self-control to subsequent college graduation results and even people’s lifetime outcomes.

‘Self-control’ is a child’s ability to control their behaviours and thoughts. They have to resist strong inclinations to do things they should not do and instead do what has been requested or what is the most appropriate thing to do in the situation.

Sounds easy, but it certainly isn’t when you are five! In a classroom situation self-control is vital. The child who cannot follow the teacher’s directions and chooses instead to act on their impulses cannot learn. The child who experiences failure and gives up cannot learn. The child who gives up when they are bored cannot learn. In all of these situations, the child has to demonstrate self-control.

The video below shows a simple test for self-control. It is the Stanford Marshmallow Test. It is a good indicator of impulse control. It is also a good laugh!


Simple games to develop self-control-

You don’t need fancy equipment or resources to develop self-control. Good old-fashioned games help develop this skill.

1. Simon Says– children follow verbal instructions according to ‘Simon’

2. Red Light, Green Light- children run when someone says ‘green light’ and freeze when someone says ‘red light’.

3. Playing Opposites- children do or say the opposite to what somebody else does or says. For example, if Mum says jump slowly, the child would jump quickly

4. Imaginative Play- opportunities to engage in creative play is one of the best ways a child can develop self-control, particularly if they are playing with someone else.

Did you know that self-control was so important? What else do you do to prepare young children for school? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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