I still remember my daughter's first day of kindergarten. She was wearing a white jumper, emblazoned with the face of Strawberry Shortcake, and a matching pale, pink shirt. Her blond hair was short and combed to the side. her Barbie lunch box was in hand. She is now 10 and going into the 5th grade. She loves school and excels. Her enthusiasm, excitement, good grades, and ever-evolving social skills all started with that first day. How do we, as parents (and teachers), prepare our little learners for the first day of a 13-year career?
Tame the Jitters
It is really easy to fall into bad habits and routines: getting up late, rushing breakfast, and struggling to finish homework. Being proactive is the best way to instill good study habits and ensure that the transition to school is as smooth as possible. Prior to school starting, establish your expectations. This can be done in the form of a contract, daily to-do list, or a schedule. These visual devices help pre-readers know what needs to be done and can easily be incorporated to a positive reinforcement or reward system. Daily schedules can include getting dressed, eating breakfast, personal hygiene, school time, what to expect after school, and homework. I’ve made schedules for my kids (in and out of the classroom) with a computer and printable icons to represent each time period. When you establish expectations a week or two prior to school starting, your child will already be in sync with the routines he will be expected to follow throughout the year.
For example: Place the schedule in a child-accessible area and explain what it means. Practice the routine with him. Ask him to set his clothes out before bed, and then assist you in making his lunch for the next day. That way, when the early morning rolls around, he will only need to get dressed, eat breakfast, grab his backpack, and head out the door! Proactive strategies are an easy way to make transitions less stressful.
Take a Trip
Prior to school starting, take your child to his new campus. Allow him to look in the windows, walk around the grounds, locate the bathrooms, and play on the playground. You can even turn your first visit to the school site into a scavenger hunt. Print out pictures of all the things you want him to find, such as those previously mentioned. Once found, reward your school-yard hunter with a sticker or high-5. While you’re checking out the new school digs, take a moment or two to talk to your little one about what school might be like, the type of people he will meet there, and what to do if he encounters a bully or doesn't make a friend right away. This may even be a good time to discuss what you will be doing while he is at school. Assure him that it’s OK to feel a little sad or to miss you during the day. Preparing your child emotionally and proactively is one of the best ways to make the butterflies in his tummy a little less active.
Learning Continues at Home
Oral language skills are essential and can be developed in a variety of ways. Talk to your child every day. I know that sounds silly, but really talk to him. Have a discussion about what he did that day, what he thinks of school, and why. Asking a why question provides your child with an opportunity to think in terms of cause and effect, analyze situations, and lets you hear how he thinks. Play games that require him to listen and follow directions. Simon Says and Red Light Green Light are two examples. Discriminate between different phonemes in words. I spy something beginning with….(sounds provided and match pictures and initial sounds or play the game "I went to the market and bought…" The child repeats the initial object and adds another one which either begins or ends with the same sound. Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes. All these quick-and-easy activities will help your pre-schooler get ready to build strong expressive verbal and listening skills.
Establishing Skills for Educational Success
Thinking Skills: Logical reasoning and thinking skills can happen anytime throughout the day. Have your child match or sort clothes by size or color while you do laundry. Provide simple puzzles. Show your child a shape; have him collect objects from around the house that match the shape you’ve shown him. Send him out to the yard to collect objects, have him bring the objects in, and explain how various objects go together. Cut out pictures from magazines and have your child put pictures in a sequential order as a way to tell a story.
- Math Skills: An easy way to build number sense and early math skills is to have your child count. Think of the possibilities: clouds, goldfish crackers, books, and even the bottles you take out to be recycled. Number recognition is also a key skill. I like to incorporate the concept of numbers into daily activity. For example, “Can you hand me two (hold up two fingers) cups?” Or, “I see the number 3 right there. What do you think that means? Let’s count 1, 2, 3. There are 3 apples in the basket.” Number-hunt games are also good recognition builders. Hide numbers around the house, when your child brings you a number he/she finds, have the child then search for that number of objects. “You found a number 2, can you find 2 things?” Counting songs are a great way to build an understanding of number sequence. "Five Little Monkeys", "The Ants Go Marching Along", "1-2 Buckle My Shoe", and "10 Little Indians" are only a few. And, you can always incorporate counting during story time. While reading your favorite picture book, point out animals, objects, or people, and have your child count and tell you how many he found.
- Reading Skills: I cannot stress how important reading to your child is, in prepping him for a life of literacy. Reading is found in every subject, it allows a person to explore concepts independently, it houses vocabulary in context, and activates multiple parts of the brain. Reading is a fun way to bond and to build those ever important pre-reading skills. You can also have letter magnets on the fridge, arranged in a variety of simple words, to relay word and letter sounds every day. You can also build a high-frequency word vocabulary by printing, cutting, or taping words on items around the house. Think about how quickly one would learn the word cup if they saw the printed word cup every time he picked one up. Oftentimes, youngsters who are quick to recognize words (like sight words) have good pattern recognition, and that skill can be applied cross-curricularly.
Playing games, singing songs, reading, and talking with your child everyday is the best way to build a sense of identity and security. It also builds the foundational skills that will enhance your child's education in kindergarten and beyond.