Today was the first day of school where I live, and my 5 year-old daughter is beginning kindergarten. She is a very shy little girl and almost needless to say today did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I had talked to her about school, playing up how great it is and how much fun she will have, the friends she will make and the new things she will learn. I also tried to instill comfort by adding that she will be in the same room that her older brother had last year. I took her to the orientation where she had the opportunity to meet her teacher as well as look around her classroom and find her seat. I involved her in the clothes buying process for the big day and thought I had all my bases covered.
Not so if our results are any indication. My little sweetie was in tears in the arms of a teacher when I walked out of the room fifteen minutes after school had begun, and I was in tears all the way to my car and all the way home (and all over my husband once I arrived).
The transition to a formal school setting is a major milestone for millions of children, parents and teachers; however, research by the National Center for Early Development & Learning (NCEDL) indicates that transition practices commonly used in schools may not be suited to the needs of children or families.
There are four reasons that the transition from home to kindergarten and the early grades is important.
First, the early grade school years, particularly kindergarten, are important in jump-starting the growth of children’s social and academic skills as well as beginning the parents’ involvement in their child’s education-all critical to school success and achievement.
Second, early childhood learning environments are quite different from traditional elementary classroom settings. Early childhood learning environments provide support for both child and parent as well as recognize the developmental differences between preschool-age children and school-age children. The start of kindergarten is a dramatic change and transition for children and their families and that change is what transition practices attempt to address and overcome.
Third, large amounts of public funding are now available to educate young children with the goal of boosting their chance of success in the classroom and beyond. It is important to understand and form the conditions under which the funding can be best applied.
Finally, children’s experiences prior to the start of kindergarten are different than a generation ago. Kindergarten classes are larger and children have to adjust to more children and more adults than in preschool. There is increasing emphasis on formal instruction and the acquisition of skills. Maturity demands are greater, such as sitting still for longer periods of time and self-control and attention. Children may also be riding the bus without parents and with bigger children for the first time. More children are being enrolled in preschool or in day care settings that give them experiences with peers and a classroom atmosphere.
In 1996, a national US survey by NCEDL found that most teachers do the same transition practices which give a clear picture of the typical transition experience. Families are likely to receive a form letter telling them when school starts, what to bring, and that open house is scheduled sometime near the end of September. They are least likely to get a phone call or personalized information before school starts.
The most commonly used transition practices when compared with the practices recommended by “Ready Schools,” published by the National Educational Goals Panel (1997), can be characterized as low intensity, group-oriented practices that do little to involve families and build partnerships before the start of school. In short, schools do too little too late to connect with families.
While policymakers and educators are scrambling to find their foothold on useful transition practices, what can parents do? According to Nancy Self, a Texas A&M University education professor who has spent 30 years dealing with education issues, parents should foster both academic and social skills in their children prior to and throughout kindergarten so that their children have the best chance for success.
To give your children an idea of what kindergarten is and what will be expected of them, Self suggests reading specific books about kindergarten as enrollment time approaches. Once school begins find out what types of learning activities will be emphasized in class and find ways to incorporate similar ideas at home with your children. This can be accomplished through things as simple as counting toys or reading road signs.
“The simple act of allowing a child to help make a sandwich can teach basic sequencing skills,” Self notes.
In addition to these skills, Self says children should be able to recognize and write their own names as well as possess adequate social skills such as taking turns, sharing and not interrupting others. These skills can be taught through playing games with children, she adds.
Self recommends that parents frequently role-play with their children, placing them in pretend scenarios and noting their responses to these situations. Parents should also encourage their children’s creativity by allowing them to participate in various art activities such as drawing and painting, she says. Coloring books, however, should be avoided because they limit children’s creativity and discourage artistic involvement, she adds.
Once a child has grown accustomed to the routine of kindergarten, Self says parents should keep school in the conversation by taking time every day with their child to reflect on what went on in school. She advises parents to speak of their own school experiences so that the child can better relate.
Self also urges parents against establishing a reward system for their children because it discourages intrinsic motivation and can lead to constantly “upping the ante” in order to get children to perform to an expected standard.
“Rather than using rewards, parents could engage in a special celebration of a worthy accomplishment by the child instead of in fulfillment of an earlier promise made to the child,” Self notes.
Now I know there are more things I could have done for my daughter and I am relieved there are more things I can do throughout the year for her and I know this experience is not a total washout. I have confidence now and hope for a successful kindergarten year. (I also made chocolate cake for her after-school snack.)