Transitioning to kindergarten is a big step. Here’s how experts say you can support your child before and after school starts.
Children of all ages face back-to-school jitters, no matter how many ‘first days’ they’ve had in their lifetime. For students entering kindergarten, the transition from early care to formal schooling can be especially daunting.
As Appleton’s Edison Elementary Principal Katie Schmeltzer explained, students attending kindergarten in Appleton can expect a longer day. Typically, 4K programming – which is optional in Wisconsin – spans a couple of hours to a half-day. Edison Elementary’s kindergarten lasts from 8:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.
The content of this long day is also likely to differ from that of early care or 4K as well. When students enter kindergarten in the Appleton School District, they can expect an increased focus on academics, Schmeltzer said.
“Our 4K curriculum is very play-based,” Schmeltzer said. “4K is (learning) how to interact with peers, play respectfully, clean up toys and other social skills and cues. We continue to work on those in kindergarten, but now we introduce the reading, writing, math, science and social studies.”
Dana Austin has fun teaching her students a lesson on syllables during Kindergarten Camp Thursday, August 18, 2022, at Westwood Elementary School in De Pere, Wis. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Children’s time engaging with parents and early education professionals such as child care providers and 4K teachers helps to prepare them for kindergarten.
For example, Schmeltzer said, simply being read to teaches children foundational reading skills, while coloring and writing the letters in their name hones fine motor skills needed to make an exceptional writer. They also learn social-emotional skills like how to listen to directions, play nicely with peers and siblings and even problem solve.
“Quality child care options can help prepare children for school. That safe, nurturing educational place in early childhood is a great stepping stone for children to continue through their education,” said Micki Krueger, assistant director of Childcaring, a Mosinee-based organization that helps central Wisconsin families in finding quality care and provides child care providers with essential resources.
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Yet the transition to kindergarten can still be overwhelming for parents and children, even when the children have some kindergarten readiness skills under their belt.
Below are some tips to help make the transition as smooth as possible.
Cooper Decker, left, and Bennett Mertz use table toys to help with socialization during Kindergarten Camp Thursday at Westwood Elementary School in De Pere,. Teacher Sarah Slattery’s itineray for the day included table toys to help with socialization, a morning message and literacy time to teach students syllables.
Strengthen self-help and social-emotional skills
Dana Bain, a referral specialist and training coordinator at Child Care Resource and Referral Fox Valley in Kimberly and mother of an incoming kindergartener, said the need for social readiness is one sentiment she repeatedly hears from kindergarten teachers.
“Teachers really appreciate it when young children come to school able to button buttons, dress themselves independently, play and work with other children and understand how to communicate their needs with teachers and school staff,” Bain said. “Those are very basic things that we think of, but they are very key and help the child be able to succeed in those first few years of school.”
Schmeltzer said incoming kindergarteners should know how to go to the bathroom independently and be responsible for belongings, as well as who they can go to for help.
Teaching your child how to interact positively with peers is also essential, experts say. This includes how to share and play appropriately in group settings, how to appropriately express feelings and how to deal with conflict.
With the pandemic, some children have had decreased opportunities to hone these social skills, especially those without siblings or who did not attend child care or other early education programming.
This does not mean parents cannot find ways to help them learn these skills, though, said Dr. Hillary Herman, a pediatrician who cares for patients at Ascension Northeast Wisconsin’s St. Elizabeth Campus.
“Parents can introduce their children to group settings with other children around their age, such as library story times and playdates,” Herman said.
Sarah Slattery talks with Evan Forehand, right, during a session that uses table toys to help students with socialization during Kindergarten Camp Thursday at Westwood Elementary School in De Pere.
Before school starts, do a trial run
Discussing and imitating conditions children will experience at school can go a long way in helping children feel prepared, Bain said. This can range from eating out of lunch boxes, as Herman suggested, to taking advantage of school orientation nights.
Sarah Forehand, mother of an incoming kindergartner at Westwood Elementary School in West De Pere, had her son attend the school’s three-day ‘Kindergarten Camp’ last week. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, participating students got a taste of Westwood before school starts Sept. 1, from routines like those they’ll follow in kindergarten to learning activities.
“I wanted him to kind of see where he’s going to be and meet his teacher,” Forehand said. “I figured going there for just a few hours every day, being with some of the people he knows (from child care), just getting used to it, especially before the bigger kids get there, should help him adjust a little bit more so that he doesn’t completely freak out before the first day of school.”
A key component of this preparation is getting both your schedule and your child’s sleep schedule in tune with the academic year, Forehand and Bain said.
“Get your child ready for their new schedule with earlier wake-up times in the morning and earlier bedtimes,” Bain said. “It can be tricky because we’re trying to squeeze in as much summer as we can, but this can help tremendously with transitioning them and so that in the morning you’re not rushing as a parent and giving yourself unnecessary stress.”
Asking your child to elaborate on their concerns can help pinpoint ways to reassure them, Bain said.
For example, she knows of a child care provider who was caring for a child who was nervous about riding the bus. The provider arranged for the bus driver to meet the child ahead of time, allowing the child to get to meet a friendly face and ask questions.
Often, young children struggle with transitioning from one activity to the next – something that is an essential component of kindergarten, Bain said. She suggested making a visual schedule and following it in the days leading up to kindergarten, allowing the child to learn what to expect and practice those transition periods. Then, when the child gets to school, they are accustomed to following sequences.
Excitement is infectious
Children feed off the energy around them, and Bain said this can be used to parents’ advantage when preparing their little ones for school.
“Start talking about the fun and new things the child will learn and experience at school; field trips, music time, reuniting with friends, recess and lunch time are all things that kids get really excited about,” Bain said. “If we as parents can get excited, then hopefully they can get excited too.”
Forehand said her son found back-to-school shopping particularly exciting, and she gave him free rein to choose his clothes, backpack, lunch box and school supplies. She said providing him with choices gave him a sense of control.
“I do think he’s a little nervous, but (shopping) is one of those things where he can be involved and he likes making those decisions for himself,” she said. “It’s a big change for him, and a lot of times kids don’t like change very much. It helps him see that it’s OK and that he’ll still have things that he will find comfort in and be happy with.”
Dana Austin has fun teaching her students a lesson on syllables Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, during Kindergarten Camp at Westwood Elementary School in De Pere, Wis.
Go over important safety information
Schmeltzer emphasized it’s important to ensure your child knows important information in case of an emergency.
“For safety, we talk about practicing your full name, your address and what your parents’ names are just so they can share that factual information if anything ever were to happen,” Schmeltzer said.
It is also important that children know the name of their teacher and school, and, if possible, their parents’ contact information as well as that of a backup emergency contact.
Take an active role in your child’s learning
If parents were solely responsible for ensuring their children mastered their academics, there would not be a need for schools.
At the same time, simple practices like reciting the alphabet in the car won’t hurt, Schmeltzer said.
Edison Elementary’s kindergarten teachers send home a ‘Peak at the Week’ newsletter each Thursday, Schmeltzer said. This allows parents and their students to get a preview of what they will be learning the next week, and it contains questions parents can ask their children on these topics.
She said this is a great way for parents to ensure they’re involved in their child’s school life.
“Teachers and parents should be partners to help children learn,” Bain said.
Recognize the transition will be tough – but there is a team behind you
No matter how much preparation, a child’s transition into kindergarten is most likely not going to be seamless. Schmeltzer said it is normal for children to have a hard time saying goodbye to their parents, especially if they are typically home with them.
“Parents (should) expect the first few days and weeks of school to be very overwhelming for their child, especially if this is the first time their child has been in formal schooling or if they have never been in child care before,” Bain said. “Expect meltdowns and expect them to have a harder time in those first few days and weeks — that’s normal.”
Ensuring a child has a positive kindergarten experience is a collective effort by parents, teachers and additional learning supports when necessary, Schmeltzer said. Both Bain and Schmeltzer said parents should not be afraid to contact their child’s teacher if they have concerns.
Those worried about their child’s development should consult with their pediatrician, Herman said.
“We can help you decide where your child is at in their development and (if needed) where would be a good start for a developmental assessment,” Herman said. “The public school districts have developmental screenings that help assess the need for speech therapy, special classes or an IEP.”
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Don’t sweat the academics too much
Parents often ask “What does my child need to know before kindergarten?”
Herman said “there is not an exact list or specific checkboxes” to answer this question.
Herman said she looks at developmental milestones common in children ages 4 or 5 when assessing a child’s kindergarten readiness.
On the academic end, these include naming colors, counting to 10 and knowing one’s name, Herman said. Schmeltzer added it’s helpful when incoming kindergartners have practiced writing their name and identifying numbers and letters.
Yet, Schmeltzer said, kindergarten teachers understand not every child is going to come in with the same academic skill sets, and that is OK.
“I feel like there’s so much pressure academically that we forget that we are also teaching them to be good humans,” Schmeltzer said. “If they can learn the basics of how to be a good person and successful student, the academics will come. If they’re still struggling with friendship issues, how to be a good listener and those things, we aren’t able to get to the academics.”
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member. She is based at the Post Crescent in Appleton. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 920-993-7108.
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This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Kindergarten is a big change. Tips for parents to ease the transition