When children enter kindergarten, moms and dads must relinquish control to strangers, sometimes for the first time. And the people and atmosphere of school helps create brand-new versions of our children. For at least 13 more years they’ll be called students, and the expectations are different from when we parents were in their shoes. Here are some ideas for helping kids have a good kindergarten experience.
School Gets Real
This starts with a parent’s realization that her baby is actually starting school. Whether the milestone is anticipated or dreaded, the stress parents feel trickles down to their child. Without adequate ways to handle this stress, kindergartners may struggle. They may become moody, suffer from headaches or even have trouble sleeping.
Having children identify what stress feels like is the first step in learning how to cope with it. Allow them to talk about how they feel. It ties their emotions to the situation. Opening this line of communication helps them work out how to approach it and lets them know they are not alone. Having a way to burn off steam can help, too. Running and playing outside gives kids an outlet for their pent-up anxiety and energy.
What Parents Can Expect
Children begin kindergarten at any age from 4 ½ to 6 ½ years old. That’s a significant difference in developmental readiness and maturity. Sara Zolik, a kindergarten teacher with the Southside Academy Charter School for nine years, has a few ideas on what parents will face.
Regardless of the difference in preschool preparation, “look at the whole picture,” she suggests. “The focus should be on the child’s achievement.” She believes there’s more to it than just the academic piece. “If they are excited, they will do well. Know your child and be honest about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. If you know what their needs are, you will be on the same page as the teacher.”
What’s Different Today?
School has changed significantly within the last decade or so. Kids are being exposed to information in kindergarten that years ago might not have been introduced until first or second grade.
What’s the biggest difference? Expect your kindergartner to be reading by the end of the school year. Strategies include introducing sight words (as, with, the, is) and memorizing them. Also, expect homework.
This high-intensity learning, however, may result in regression in other areas. For instance, potty-trained kids may start to have accidents, and thumb sucking may return. Sometimes all children need is extra cuddling and support while they adapt to the demands of school.
With a new full-time schedule without naps, kids are often exhausted at the end of the school day. Teachers see children fall asleep in class by late afternoon. Grumpy children have more meltdowns because they can’t adequately process their feelings.
After school, allow time to wind down with a routine. Make electronics off limits in the evening, and set a regular bed time that’s early enough for a full night of good sleep.
How to Reduce Anxiety
Phil Cleary has taught preschool for 24 years at the North Syracuse Central School District’s Early Education Program at Main Street School in North Syracuse. He believes a child has four basic concerns when starting school.
“It’s very much like us starting a new job,” he says. “Kids want to know where they are going and what it looks like. They will feel better if they know who is going to be there, and if they will have friends.”
He believes parents should give only enough information to satisfy their questions. Too much information overloads them. “Keep it simple, positive, and directly address their concerns. Take a tour of the school if it’s offered. Show your child where the bathroom is and where they might put their coat.”
School can be an especially unfamiliar experience for children who have always been cared for at home. Ashley Stone, a speech-language pathologist, recommends reading picture books together that address this separation. Her favorite book is The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Many familiar characters, such as Arthur, Clifford and Winnie the Pooh, also tackle this topic.
Getting Ready for Independence
All kindergarten classes share the same requirements and it’s never too late to fine tune abilities. Every child should be able to identify his or her name in print. Children who can write their names starting with a capital letter will have a head start.
What can be overlooked most, according to all those I interviewed, is a child’s ability to care for herself independently. Kids should be able to fasten and button clothing after bathroom visits, and they should be able to handle outerwear such as boots and mittens on their own. Teachers simply don’t have time to zip up coats on 20 or more children at dismissal.
Also, reinforce a child’s ability to be patient. Whether it’s during lessons, while a teacher attends to others or during circle time, kids should be able to tolerate waiting. Practice waiting without using handheld devices, since children won’t be allowed to use them in school.
Reading for Success
The importance of a parent reading to her son or daughter, at any age, cannot be stressed enough. And it’s at the top of every teacher’s wish list. Readaloud.org advocates for 15 minutes every day.
Reading to a child strengthens the parent-child relationship. It also helps kids associate books and print with pleasure.
Listening to a parent read gives youngsters a head start in language development and literacy skills. The more they do it, the better they read. Successful readers are more likely to be successful in life. Plus, it’s free.
Since both parent and child are experiencing school for the first time in these new roles, it’s even more important for moms and dads to be involved in the process. Thoughtful preparation and follow-through can set the stage for a lifetime of happy learning.