How Parents Can Help Kindergarten Readiness

·6 min read

Kindergarten is an exciting rite of passage for American children as they join the system that will educate them for the next dozen years. But is your child ready for life in kindergarten?

While the start date for compulsory education varies by state, most children begin kindergarten in the calendar year when they turn 5. A half- or full-day kindergarten program is available to almost every child in the United States. Though it is only mandated in 19 states and Washington, D.C., about 4 million children attend kindergarten in the U.S. each year.

Education experts say kindergarten provides the social, emotional, behavioral and academic learning that lays the foundation for future education, and that there is much parents can do to help get children ready for kindergarten.

[Read: What Do Kids Learn in Kindergarten?]

The Utility of Preschool

Many parents enroll their children in preschool to introduce them to the basics before kindergarten. In fact, almost half of all 3- and 4-year-olds attended a preschool program in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Preschool emphasizes the social, emotional and behavioral skills -- the 'readiness skills' -- for learning that set kids up for success in kindergarten," says Steven Tobias, director of the Center for Child & Family Development in New Jersey and author of " Emotionally Intelligent Parenting."

Students learn these skills when they practice sitting still for circle time, sharing with others, working cooperatively, and listening to their teacher and their peers, Tobias says, adding that kids also learn vital self-help skills when they practice things like putting on their coat and taking responsibility for their own supplies each day.

Preschool education classes are a useful way to help children achieve kindergarten readiness, but there is also plenty that parents can do at home.

Physical and Emotional Readiness

First and foremost, schedule your child for a checkup with their pediatrician before they start school, says Dr. David Krol, medical director of the Connecticut Children's Care Network.

"Make sure they are up to date on their immunizations, they have their vision and hearing checked, and they are healthy and developing appropriately" he says. "(An annual physical) is also an opportunity to make sure any questions or concerns you have are asked and addressed, and any guidance around development and safety can be provided."

Emotional readiness is also important. Allow your child to share their feelings about starting kindergarten, says Caitlin Meister, an educator and founder of The Greer Meister Group, a private tutoring and educational consulting practice in New York. "They might feel excited, anxious, eager, trepidatious or a confusing combination of both welcome and challenging emotions," Meister says.

To assuage any school-related anxiety, parents can take children on a tour of their school and classroom, and introduce them to their teacher before their first day, Tobias says. "The more familiar your child is with the environment and the people that they're going to be interacting with, the easier the transition will be," he says. "If a child has separation difficulties, alert the school. That way, they're prepared to provide whatever emotional support might be necessary."

To foster your child's independence at home, give them small responsibilities that they can master over time, such as washing and drying their hands, Krol says. This will help them learn to care for themselves, and make sure they're also comfortable asking for help, he says.

Socialization and Rules

Incoming kindergarten students should be able to share their ideas and feelings; coexist with peers comfortably and kindly; and demonstrate a willingness to learn among others, says Lauren Mactas, head of early learning at The Elisabeth Morrow School in New Jersey.

"The best way for a parent to prepare a child for kindergarten is to offer opportunities for social interaction and problem-solving," Mactas says.

[READ: Process Art for Kids: What Parents Should Know.]

Play dates are a great way for children to practice their social skills at home in a natural setting, Tobias says. He advises parents to monitor interaction without directing it, only intervening as a coach might if a conflict arises. "It's very helpful for parents to praise children if they're playing cooperatively, if they're sharing, or if they are turn-taking and being kind to one another," he says.

The Importance of Routine

Establishing a regular bedtime and predictable routine at home is crucial to kindergarten readiness. Parents can find out the school's drop-off procedure in advance, so children know what to expect, and prepare the night before by laying out clothes, backpacks and breakfast, Meister says. After you drop your child off at school, don't sneak out. Always say goodbye, Meister says.

"Show your child that you feel at ease with leaving and that you're clear and confident about when you will see him again," Meister says. "Try to find out what the schedule for the day is, and tell your child something like, 'after lunch, there will be an art project, and after that art project, mommy will be waiting by the big green door right there.' And be early for those first few pickups. It will be challenging for your child to come out of the classroom or building and not see you there waiting."

Academic Readiness

By the start of kindergarten, students should have an emerging understanding of letters and numbers, show interest in reading and be eager to learn, experts say. There are several things that parents can do to help.

-- Reading. Reading to your child helps develop their vocabulary and their understanding of meaning, Tobias says. "Ultimately reading ability correlates with language skills," he says. "It also helps develop an enjoyment of reading. When a parent reads to the child and it's a pleasurable experience for both of them, that's what's going to create a positive association to reading as well as other academic skills."

-- Language. Parents should visit the library with their child, tell them stories and sing them songs and rhymes as often as possible, says Carmen Draayer, curriculum project manager at Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care in Maryland. "Exposing (children) to quality literature and rich language experiences will help them not only develop language and listening skills, but it will strengthen the child's cognitive development and background knowledge for future learning," she says.

-- Counting. Kids entering kindergarten should be able to count up to 20, as well as recognize and identify numbers (even if they're listed out of order), says George Tsagas, an educator and co-founder of eMathZone. It is OK if children can't write out numbers perfectly; Tsagas says number recognition and verbal counting is most important. "Kids around this age should also be able to organize objects according to shared traits," Tsagas says, "for example, categorizing blocks according to color or shape."

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