What You Really Need to Know About Preparing Your Child for Kindergarten
Two years ago, I left my bawling son in a school auditorium in the hands of a loving kindergarten teacher, who had to pry him off of me as he screamed. It was not the Instagram-worthy first day of school I had imagined, and his entire introduction to kindergarten was difficult for him.
Our school district did a wonderful transition program — a spaghetti dinner to show them how to use the cafeteria, shortened days the first week of school to ease them into our full-day program, and even sent them home with books to read about the transition. He knew his letters, his numbers, and was beginning to read. He had attended an excellent preschool and I thought we had focused on all of the right things. We worked to prepare him, but it was still a huge change for our little guy. We had neglected the social and emotional change that-full time school is for small children. He’s now a confident, happy second-grader who skips through the doors each morning, but it took a lot of work to get him there.
This fall, I will be sending our middle two children, our 5 year-old twins, off to kindergarten. As we prep them for this transition, I took some time to reflect on what we did well with our eldest, and what we could improve upon. I also spoke to several veteran kindergarten teachers to find out what our kids really need to know for kindergarten. The surprising answer is “not academics.”
Don’t Worry About Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic
Bridgette Keenan has been teaching kindergarten in upstate New York for 32 years. She suggests parents shouldn’t worry too much about teaching their kids a specific set of academic information in preparation for kindergarten. “The academics will fall into place if the children have a wide range of language experiences through books and problem-solving opportunities — things like a walk in the park to talk about what they see and hear.” Interactions and experience outweigh rote learning.
Keenan urges parents to let their child have the chance to flounder a bit, and not have had their parent “rescue” them or solve all their problems. Let them practice opening their own snack or wiping their own bottom, and model and practice with them.
Keenan’s school has several events before the year starts where parents and children can get acquainted with the classroom and the teacher. Activities, games, and a tour all help ease the children into their new setting. The number one skill she wants her students to learn? “Be kind. We are a school family and we treat each other with kindness and respect.”
I worry that I haven’t given my twins the chance to “flounder,” as Keenan suggests. With four children, sometimes I run things in our home more as an assembly line than as a learning experience. Preparing everyone’s lunch results in fewer tears than watching them struggle to open a cheese stick, so perhaps I’ve set them up for failure? Social embarrassment?
I nervously laugh as I share this with Keenan, who notes that it is often easier for a parent to just do things for a child. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to learn these skills now.
Be kind, though, we have been working on for years. Play groups, library story times, and lots of unstructured play with other children all help to encourage these social skills. Just as with any 5-year-old, they don’t have this skill flawlessly mastered, but I am pretty proud of the little humans they have become.
Dealing With Anxiety
For the anxious child, normalization and familiarity are key. Parents who have the chance to tour the school can take pictures, which they can print into a book their child can look at so that the space feels familiar. These “social stories” help a child learn in the way that they have learned everything thus far in their life: by exposure and repetition.
Reading books about kindergarten that highlight the many feelings children may be having is very helpful. Scholastic has a popular list that my children have loved thus far. My twins came home from the Welcome to Kindergarten spaghetti dinner with their own copy of The Night Before Kindergarten, which is already dog-eared and well-loved.
In Wyoming, kindergarten teacher Katie Hunter focuses on adjusting to the new routine over academics as well. For many kids, this is the first time they will be away from home all day, and even for those coming from a preschool or daycare program, it is likely the most independent they have had to be.
To address this, her district does a kinder camp for several days in the summer before the school year starts. The focus is not letters and numbers but rather life skills. “They get to meet their teacher, get to know the school, experience the lunchroom, learn about the playground and get some experience being away from their parents.” It is designed to be a small glimpse of kindergarten all while having fun and becoming comfortable with the school.
Hunter notes that it is very common to have kids enter kindergarten at so many different levels. “Some come in with absolutely nothing mastered, and others are already reading books.” The school has specialized interventions and groups kids based on abilities so they can focus on things at their level. The district also has a Kinder Boost program for kids before kindergarten to help those who need a bit of a leg up either socially or academically in order to make their transition as stress-free as possible.
Does Hunter want parents to spend the summer before kindergarten pouring over flashcards with their child? Not necessarily. It is more important that they know how to follow directions, share, cooperate with others, listen to a story. “I would much rather a kid come in ready to learn and listen than know all their letters and be missing the social aspect.” A child who is ready to learn will pick up the academics, and Hunter encounters those kinds of children every year.
Act It Out
Letting children act out their fears and anxieties through play or art is a great way to help them process new experiences. Rather than guide their play, observe and remark on it without judgement. Children often act out conflict and resolution in their play if we give them the chance, which can be cathartic as they prepare for the new transition.
My daughter has had me sit through endless rounds of play school where she is the teacher and I am the student. I have heard her anxiety shine through her play, but also watched her overcome that anxiety through the scripts she writes. She is processing the changes coming into her world in a few short weeks, as all rising kindergarteners are likely to do.
And the most important tool parents need for their new kindergartener? Time.
It is not unusual for children to take the entire fall to adjust to their new routine. My second grader came home and fell asleep every day after school until October. This is normal, according to Hunter. “It takes some kids a long time to soak in all the rules and how school actually works before they can even pick up on the academic aspect.” Have low expectations, allow plenty of down time, and before long your child will have adjusted to this new season of life.
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