Education Quandary: 'My daughter has been looked after in a day nursery. Will she be OK when she starts school? Is there anything that I can do to help her now?'

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Hilary's advice

This reader is anxious about a new book by the psychologist Oliver James which rails against children under three being left in day nurseries. Studies show, he says, that young children left in nurseries have raised levels of the "fight or flight" hormone cortisol, that these raised levels last throughout childhood, and that they lead to more aggressive and disobedient behaviour. Not only does this affect the children themselves, but also others – in the USA, researchers have found that home-reared children behave more badly in school when they are in a class with a lot of day care-reared peers.

I actually believe there is some cause for concern here, and that a home environment is by and large better for very young children. But what fundamentally matters to pre-schoolers is love, consistency and security and all these things can be provided – or not – by a parent, grandparent, childminder or attentive carers at a nursery.

Poor day care, with high child-to-adult ratios and a rapid turnover of staff, is obviously not good for young children, but nor is being at home with a depressed or lonely parent. So if this reader's daughter is happy, content and secure in her routine, she almost certainly has nothing to worry about.

In terms of helping prepare her daughter for school, this mother needs to talk to her, read to her and generally help her feel familiar with words, letters and numbers. She needs to make sure she can do practical things such as dress and undress herself and go to the lavatory unaided, and encourage her to be willing to have a go at new things without always needing help. Learning to speak up, to ask for help and say please and thank you would all be useful, and if she can also teach her how to listen – an increasingly rare skill – she'll have given her a priceless classroom asset. There is more on this in the chapter on starting school in my own parenting book, Help Your Child Succeed at School, a book designed to help parents and keep anxiety at bay!

Reader's advice

Going to nursery will have helped your daughter adapt to school. She will do much better than children who have had no experience of being in a group and playing with other children. She will know how to share and co-operate and be used to having different adults around. The children who are most clingy and find it hardest to get going in "big school" are those who have been brought up alone at home by a doting parent and never had to learn to take their place alongside other children. They often have a hard learning experience.

Joyce Partingdale, Norfolk

The way to prepare your daughter for school is to make it seem a normal next step. Don't talk it up into a big thing, or tell her how much she will love it, but make it part of everyday conversation so she gets used to the idea she will leave her nursery and move on. Over the summer you can walk her past the outside of the school and let her be part of any preparations such as buying a school uniform or sewing on name tapes.

Jill Barry, Cardiff

I believe it is criminal of so-called child-rearing experts to make parents worry about things they can't do anything about. Most of them are actually pretty dodgy, anyway, and only working out their hang-ups about their own childhoods. In their book, everything you do as a mother is always wrong, and everything that happens is always your fault. Dads are let off.

Maria Alvones, London SW1

Next week's quandary

Pupils at my son’s school help man the reception desk when they are in Year Eight. I’ve always though this was a good thing, but a group of parents in our year (Year Seven) have complained and asked me to sign a petition against it. They say it exploits pupils and takes them away from lessons.

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