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How to Help Your Preschooler Prepare for Kindergarten

Written By Margaret Paton . January 15, 2019

A Look at School Readiness

As a parent, you’re no doubt aware that school is a whole different ball game for your preschooler.

It’s a huge change, says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for education and skills[1].

“For many children … [transition to school] a big cultural change – in the people surrounding them, the ways in which they interact, their number of peers, the types of activities they are engaged in, and their physical surroundings.”

In most places, schools have a lower staff to children ratio, the curriculum is very different from early learning and the transitions may be bumpy. Potentially, a poor transition will undo your child’s great learnings at preschool and childcare, says Schleicher.

“The benefits of early learning can fade during the first years of [elementary] school and if the transition between early childhood education and care, and [elementary] school is not well-prepared or if continuity in quality is not ensured.”

Here’s how to help them prepare for their first year of ‘big school’ – kindergarten.

Age-old question

In most US states, children must turn five before they start kindergarten, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, in some states, you’ll have a 4½-year-old and a 6½-year-old sitting side by side in a class. Some research supports holding children back as it lowers their likelihood of repeating future grades and can boost their scores on standardized tests in 10th grade[2].

It’s your choice to delay your child’s school start for cognitive, social or emotional reasons. A key factor is whether they’ve nailed the foundational skills in preschool.

It’s not just academic readiness, though. Social readiness, independence and communication skills are also vital, according to the National Education Association’s parent guide. Add to what their family support looks like, suggests a group of British researchers[3] in recognition there’s no agreed formal definition of school readiness.

“For politicians and many parents, school readiness hinges on achieving foundation skills in literacy and numeracy. Teachers, however, are more likely to highlight the importance of children’s behaviour and socio-emotional development,” say the researchers.

So, what can you do about preparing your child in those four areas four factors – literacy, numeracy, behavior and social-emotional development? Most online ‘testing’ resources are for teachers, educators, early learning services and schools only and are behind a paywall. That means you’re unlikely to be able to download a ‘school readiness test’ and start ticking all the boxes yourself. Where to start then? Let’s delve in.

Getting practical

Your child’s practical skills are also under the spot light. For example, can they use scissors, forks or other sharp objects? Are they fully toilet trained? How well do they play, communicate and co-operate with their peers? Can they write their own name and how well do they know to say, write and hear the alphabet? How do they feel about starting school? Will they have any existing friends in their kindergarten class? Do they have older siblings – this could mean they have less family support than the average newbie kindergarten pupil, according to this study[4].

The National Education Association also offers these useful prompts to get your child school-ready:

  • Read to your child daily and discuss what you’ve read to them
  • Label your child’s clothing with their name to help them learn to recognize it
  • Boost their numeracy skills through math board games (snakes and ladders, dominoes, etc.) or those online (a great resource is YouCubed, co-founded by Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler) as well as just talking numbers whenever you can
  • Explore a musical instrument – nudging your child to learn one will also help build their mathematical and spatial skills
  • Ask your child to name colors around them
  • Encourage your child to scribble, draw, write, cut and paste, sing rhyming songs and the art of finishing a task
  • Explore the zoo, parks, shops, museums, libraries and include friends, relatives and your wider family members to improve socializing skills
  • Tackle age-appropriate puzzles and games that develop counting and problem solving (here are five to get you started)
  • Express and discuss your feelings openly as a model for them to learn the same

Collaboration and communication

Parents may well have to bridge the communication gap between their child’s early learning service and school. The OECD’s Schleicher says the aim should be for “reciprocal communication, inclusivity, mutual trust and respect”[5].

This means, having a decent chat with your child’s early learning educator to find out whether your child has met the early learning goals and if they’re ready for school or not. Each US state has early learning curriculum or guidelines, so check what’s the go for where you live. In Canada, the transitions should be smoother than the states as schools provide most of the early learning education and care. But, there’s room for improvement with an OECD review of education ranking Canada last among 20 countries. To get a grip on what your child will be learning in their first year of school in the US, check out the Common Core standards if they apply in your state.

That’s a fair bit of research, but most education authorities publish a simplified parental guide including in community languages. Another approach is to arm yourself with a comprehensive list of developmental domains when you chat with your child’s educator. A Review of School Readiness Practices in the States: Early Learning Guidelines and Assessments[6] lists them as language and literacy, early math, early science, creative arts, history and social sciences, socio-emotional development, physical well-being, health and motor development and approaches to learning.

However, you may wish to take the early learning educator’s advice with a grain of salt. If your child going off to school means they lose a ‘customer’, and enrolments are down, they may subtly sway you to hold your child back from school a year.

So, what about communicating with your child’s soon-to-be school? You’d hope they have a record of successful transitions from early learning and can demonstrate it to you or you can verify it through your own grapevine. Consider how well the school manages transitions, as well as its effectiveness in securing academic and development, supports your child might need.

Reaching out to the next teacher

As a mother of an adopted child, one whose South Korean parentage means he stands out among his mostly Caucasian peers, I was keen to share his story with his kindergarten teacher before school began. I checked in first with my then pre-schooler if he was OK with me sharing his adoption story with his would-be teacher.

In that email to the school, I also wrote an overview of my son’s progress in early learning covering literacy, numeracy and behavioral skills. As my son was also still having occasional tantrums then, I mentioned that and that he was still learning how to self-regulate. We’d also been having speech therapy as my son worked on pronouncing ‘r’ and ‘l’ more distinctly. I closed the email with a mention of what my son was looking forward to about going to school and that I’d be happy to chat about or clarify any issues.

I felt this gave the teacher a heads up about this little feisty man she was about to teach. But it was also about starting my relationship with his teacher on a good footing. It also gave my son the message I wasn’t just sending him off to a stranger, but someone who I was partnering with for his education.

The dry run

If your child’s soon-to-be school doesn’t offer staggered visits before they officially enroll to help the transition, organize a ‘dry run’ visit to the school. Make it tangible for them. Find out where their classroom will be plus locate the toilets, their playground on the school site, assembly and other key areas. Give them a tour at their own pace and allow for questions. Source the required list of student stationery, uniform, school bag and other needs. Involve your child in buying decisions and make the shopping trip as fun as possible. You might consider inviting another school-starter from your child’s future class.

Meanwhile, at home, talk about the new routine for preparing for school each day. Talk about your own experiences in starting school – your fears and expectations. Introduce storybooks to them – here are Amazon’s best sellers on the first day of school theme. As you read them, pause and discuss the issues with your child to eke out any issues they may have. Useful topics include the need for rules and consequences, how to make friends and play with other children, take turns and share.

Time to chill out

The best thing you can’t put in your child’s school bag as they trot off to their first day is to nurture their self-regulation skills – helping them de-stress and chill out. A free webinar on increasing focus and reducing anxiety in one to three minutes will be available through Gemm Learning early this year. Check this page for updates or to watch replays of webinars. Moreover, if you are concerned with your child’s beginning reading skills, you can find help here.



A Parent’s Guide to Preparing Your Child for School, PDF by the National Education Association

A Review of School Readiness Practices in the States: Early Learning Guidelines and Assessments, in Early Childhood Highlights, Child Trends newsletter

[1] Schleicher, A. [2017]. Primary up for primary school.  OECD Observer, April 1. 2nd Quarter Issue 310, pp18-19

[2] DeCicca, P & Smith, J D. [2011]. The Long-Run Impacts of Early Childhood Education: Evidence from a Failed Policy Experiment. National Bureau of Economic Research, USA Working paper 17085

[3] Hughes, C., Daly, I., Foley, S., White, N. & Devine, R T. [2015]. Measuring the Foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol 85, pp 332-356.

[4] Hughes, C., Daly, I., Foley, S., White, N. & Devine, R T. [2015]. Measuring the Foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol 85, pp 332-356.

[5]  Schleicher, A. [2017]. Primary up for primary school.  OECD Observer, April 1, 2nd Quarter Issue 310, pp18-19

[6] Daily, S., Burkhauser, M., & Halle, T. A [2010]. A Review of School Readiness Practices in the States: Early Learning Guidelines and Assessments in Early Childhood Trends Highlights, Vol 1, Issue 3, June 17. The Publisher, Child Trends, is a non-=profit, non-partisan research centre based in Washington DC. www.childtrends.org.

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