Six months before five-year-old Gaby was due to start first grade, her mother, Rebecca, was confronted with the horrible realization that perhaps her daughter was not as smart or as developed as the other children in her kindergarten. "The teacher told me that she was already falling behind with the prereading skills, didn't know her numbers and that perhaps she should stay back another year before going into first grade," recalls Rebecca, who lives just outside of Jerusalem. "I was not keen on the idea. My daughter is very mature, and considers herself much older than she is. Emotionally I knew that she was ready to start first grade but thought that maybe she just needed another adult to sit down with her one-on-one and teach her some of the basic skills that other children her age have. "I decided to hire a private tutor," says the former British immigrant, adding that it is sometimes difficult for an English-speaker and busy working mother to find the time to be a teacher in Hebrew as well. "Children also don't like to listen to a parent in that capacity. With my older son, I held back from getting him a private tutor to prepare him for elementary school. I thought it was just a lot of hysteria and competitive parents. But now that I have a child already in elementary school, I realize that being fully prepared from the beginning is invaluable. It gives them so much confidence." "There is always the risk of a child falling behind even from the first few weeks of first grade," says L. another mother from Jerusalem, who sent both of her children to private preparatory classes. "That is the main reason to sign up for one of these programs. The teacher continues on with the strong students and the weaker ones get left behind." L. explains that it was also her older daughter's kindergarten teacher who made her realize preparatory lessons were a must. "When my daughter was in kindergarten, I began noticing that some of the children were already reading and my child wasn't," she recalls. "It was very competitive and while it did not stress my daughter out, I felt that she would be disadvantaged when she got to school. "So often children arrive in first grade with no background, and because they start off working fast and because the classes are so large, those children start to fall through the cracks. I know it's all down to the hysteria of parents, but we all want what to see our children succeeding." PARENTS PUSHING their preschool children to succeed and providing them with a head start on their academic career before they even start school is a growing trend, according to Keren Yifrah, adviser of studies and customer service director at Limudit, a nationwide company dedicated to providing private tutors for children from preschool through to their final school grades. "I believe that private tutoring is much more popular here than in other places and the bottom line is that there is the feeling that the Israeli education system is just not very good," she says. "Parents are simply trying to take responsibility for their own children." Yifrah, who says that Limudit has been operating for the past 15 years, notes that in recent years the demand for preschool courses has been growing. "People want to get their children to the basic level before they start school," she says, noting that Limudit's classes are tailored to each child's capability and that they focus on prereading and basic math. "We have even had some requests from parents of preschoolers wanting their children to start learning English as young as four." While the phenomenon derives from a desire by parents to help their children, Yifrah also says that the younger generation is growing up much quicker than in the past. "They are already learning so much from television programs and the world around them," she notes. "Learning to recognize the letters or numbers really won't cause a child emotional damage but can really give them a confidence boost." AT THE Ministry of Education, courses for preschoolers are only recognized unofficially, and there are no figures on how many children arrive at school with some kind of formalized teaching. "We are not against such classes, but if we accept them, then we are admitting that our system is not giving preschool children the preparation they need for school," says Sara Reuter, elementary education administration director at the Education Ministry, adding that while she is head of the department, such courses will not be offered as a matter of official practice. "It is not really a question of whether a child needs such preparation or not. We accept any child who reaches the right age for school whether they are academically ready or not. Hopefully, we are able to provide them with any extra help they need in the classroom or in the framework of school." A former teacher, Reuter adds that the ministry is aware of the phenomenon but is really "not sure where or how it started." "Parents are exposing their children more and more to the world," she theorizes. "They are reading more books to their preschoolers, taking them on trips within Israel and overseas and really showing them the world. That means that children are more ready and open to learning at a younger age." However, Reuter also says the desire to equip children with additional tools for first grade is mainly driven by parental fear that their "little bird is moving on to a much more advanced stage of life. Physically school is so different from kindergarten. It's so much bigger and there are many more people. Parents are scared of that change." Rebecca agrees that it is partly parental fear that prompted her to seek lessons for her daughter. "I did not want her to be struggling with the academic lessons and miss out on the social aspect of school," she says. "At that age, school is supposed to fun, but the children get so much homework and have to take on so much responsibility even from first grade that if I can ease that for her in advance, surely it's worth it?" AT LIMUDIT, which hires both qualified teachers and students familiar with some of the methods for teaching preschoolers, that cost can run anywhere from NIS 100 to NIS 300 a lesson, depending on how long and who is teaching. "It's not cheap," admits L. "It's really only for those who can afford it or think it's an essential priority." "It really is worth investing the money," says Yifrah. "Competition is not really my own personal taste but if giving your children these lessons can boost their confidence, then just spend less money elsewhere. Buy fewer clothes or toys." "Most of these types of classes take place in stronger socioeconomic neighborhoods," says Reuter, adding that the ministry is not really concerned about preschool courses contributing to growing gaps in the education system between wealthy and less well-off pupils. "All children are different and grow at different speeds," she continues, using the analogy of infants learning to walk. "They all get there eventually, even if they start walking at different times. A child who might succeed academically in the future could be still developing at age five and not so interested in the academic side of life." She notes that the ministry only measures levels of development among pupils when they get to more advanced grades. "Our teachers are trained to assess the children at school and if they need help then they will provide it." Asked whether she believes that preparatory classes for first grade could help a child with borderline special needs overcome some of his or her difficulties before gaining a label, Reuter says, "These classes will not really help children with special needs; those children need something completely different. "A child not knowing something at age six does not automatically mean they have special needs. We do have certain standards, but we also know that children mature differently. The best advice I can give is that parents should just read to their children as much as possible - and it does not matter in which language they do it."