5 Essential ‘Starting School’ Skills for Kindergarten Success

Hey Parents— If you’re spending the last few weeks of summer coaching your child on counting and reciting the alphabet, take a breather. Your time will be better spent teaching these 5 key non-academic skills.

What kind of skills?

“Those that foster independence are the most important skills to have when entering kindergarten,” says Linda Savel, veteran kindergarten teacher at St. John School in Burlington, Ont. As a registered Early Childhood Educator, I’ve also done time behind the kindergarten curtain and have witnessed the struggles, the frustration (and the downright shock) of rookie kindergartners adjusting to life at school.

Today’s kindergarten curriculum is stuffed with exciting academics, and classrooms are packed with very young students. Children with strong self-help skills are able to focus on these academics and start off on the right foot.

We’re accustomed to taking care of our kids and go on autopilot wiping noses and zipping jackets, but many of us don’t realize how much we ‘over-do’. (And let’s be honest; it’s a lot faster and more efficient when we do it for them!) But you want to set your child up for kindergarten success. So consider how your child will handle self-help tasks when you’re not in the room.

Skill #1: Getting dressed

black shoelace placed on gray floor

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Your child’s first school challenge will be met in the cubby area every morning, every afternoon and as many as three recesses. They’ll deal with shoes, boots, coats (and before you know it – snow pants, mitts and hats). I’ve seen many a meltdown as children wrestle with buckles and zippers, or watched as they stand staring at their jacket or shoes, ready for someone to do it for them. And after spending the summer in shorts and sandals they may need a refresher course! Let your child practice dressing independently without being pressured. The more they do on their own at home, the more confidence they will have to do it at school.
Out the door. Foster your child’s independence by giving them some say in picking their clothes. But do a test-run before school— because not all zippers are created equal. Your child can be the coatroom champ and the first one in line if his jacket has a quality zipper with an easy-to grasp tab.

Easy feet. You may be tempted to purchase those cute lace-up sneakers, but if your child can’t tie them tightly or properly, save them for the weekend. Go for slip-ons with a good rubber sole. Otherwise, your child will spend a good chunk of the day doing the lace dragging shuffle, or be one of 20 kids waiting for the teacher to tie them – again!

Skill #2: Bathroom success

white toilet paper

Photo by hermaion on Pexels.com

I know—your child has been ‘trained’ for years: which is exactly why many parents don’t consider the bathroom an issue. But believe me, the kindergarten washroom can be a challenge.

I’ve got to go! Many children have relied on a parent or caregiver to tell them when to visit the washroom. Give your child ownership in this department so he can start thinking for himself.

Hold on a minute. In a class full of children, kids will sometimes have to wait their turn to go to the washroom. Teach kids to not wait until the last minute before deciding to make a dash for it.

Clothes call. I realize those tights match perfectly with the headband, and those jeans are super cute, but can your kids undo that button or get the tights down quickly on their own, especially if they really have to go? Send kids to school wearing elastic waist bottoms – especially in September.

Clean sweep. Teach your kids to wipe efficiently. Some parents still assist with occasional bathroom visits. But children are on their own in kindergarten. Give them plenty of practice with solo wiping and hand washing.

Skill #3: Eating- without help

analogue classic clock clock face

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Lunch (or nutrition breaks as some schools call it) is like a game of beat the clock. In 25 minutes or less can you wash your hands, get your lunch, open everything, eat, and tidy up? It’s hard enough to eat without spending too much time chatting. Imagine if you can’t open a zipper or unscrew a Thermos lid.

Opening act. Can your child open every buckle, clasp, zipper and snap on all those fancy pouches and containers within the time limit? Practise at home.

Bums in seats. Make lunch at home a ‘sit down affair’ where nibbling and roaming isn’t permitted. Your child won’t be allowed to wander around during lunch at school.

Cutlery 101. Can your child use utensils, including gauging how much to put into their mouth at one time? Give lots of opportunities to practise this skill. No more ‘helping’ in this department.

Contain yourself. Test-drive the new Thermos. It’s great to send him to school with last night’s spaghetti. But digging pasta out of that container can be tricky! If you plan on sending a container full of soup make sure he can manage broth and a spoon without giving himself a bath!

Drinking challenge. Opening juice boxes and milk cartons can be tricky. Every time your child pries open her own milk container or spears her own juice box she gains a sense of pride and independence.

Napkin know-how. Go for lunch and have your child do everything, from ordering the meal to putting the trash in the garbage. And if she gets ketchup on her face, don’t wipe it off! Start a conversation about wiping your mouth while eating. And model it yourself.

Tip: Play the ‘school lunch’ game. Pack lunches for your child and a friend (to add a social challenge). Set the timer for 25 minutes and see how they manage. Sit on your hands for this game so they really do everything themselves.

 

Skill #4: Being responsible for belongings

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

From bringing home forms to bringing back library books, to remembering backpacks from the bus, your child will suddenly have lots of things to monitor and remember. This takes practice on their part, and lots of patience and guidance on your part.

Cubby control. Children will have a bin or a hook where they are expected to keep their things at school. Managing this new space can be daunting for someone who’s always had someone do it for them. So back off at home and let kids pick up after themselves. Let them bring their own things in from the car, hang up their coat, put their shoes away. Give them a designated spot for their backpack so they can start great organizational habits.

Backpack management. Every day your child’s backpack needs to be checked for letters from the teacher, forms, library books and lunch bags. Establish a time and a space where you can go over this together. Keeping this organized needs to be a group effort. You want your child to be independent- but he needs you to fill out the forms and sign that agenda. But don’t add this to the list of things you do after he’s in bed. Do it with him. Go over the notes with him, while you fill it out. It’s an excellent opportunity to jog his memory about his day and can lead to a great conversation. Consistently keeping his backpack organized and ready to go for the next day not only helps your child establish organizational skills, it shows him that you value his education.

Skill #5: Following directions

boy wearing blue crew neck t shirt sitting on cardboard box

Photo by Sunbae Legacy on Pexels.com

Kindergarten expectations incorporate lots of self-regulation; children learn to put the breaks on impulses, wait their turn, and follow directions.

Step by step. Listening and following directions gets better with practice. Start with simple tasks at home, such as, “Please put your shoes away.” Then add more steps: “Please put your shoes in the closet, hang up your coat and put your hat on the shelf.”

Wait your turn. The kindergartener spends chunks of his day waiting; waiting for everyone to join the group, waiting in line for their turn, waiting for the teacher to give direction. It’s good practice for your child to experience waiting patiently for something at home, instead of having immediate gratification. They might wait for you to get off the phone before having dessert, or wait for you to finish the dishes before you play a game.

Picture Books to Support

big or little BIG OR LITTLE by Kathy Stinson and Jennifer A. Bell https://www.amazon.com/Big-Little-Kathy-Stinson/dp/1554511682 A great read aloud to celebrate your child’s new accomplishments as a ‘big kid’ while reminding everyone that in lots of ways, they are ‘still little’.

I love Jamie Lee Curtis picture books! https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=jamie+lee+curtis These two are awesome books for celebrating the trials and tribulations of being a kindergartner:

Hard to be 5 IT’S HARD TO BE FIVE: LEARNING HOW TO WORK MY CONTROL PANEL by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell

 

I'm Gonna Like Me I’M GONNA LIKE ME: LETTING OFF A LITTLE SELF-ESTEEM by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell

This is my new picture book, which encourages self-reliance and self-confidence when your school day takes an unexpected turn: https://www.amazon.com/Teachers-Not-Here-Lana-Button/dp/1771383569

My Picture Books

Kitty proves to herself she can get through an unexpected day at school.

 

 

Un-Planning Perfect Summer Memories for Your Kids

So it’s the second week of summer and you might be feeling summer planning stress. As much as I tried to enjoy schedule free days when my three girls were young, in summer I often turned me into my own version of cruise director Julie from The Love Boat. For the under 40 crowd, Julie carried around a clip board in this 70’s TV show, with an endless list of perfect vacation activities. I tackled many summer days stressed to make this the best summer for my kids, and piled up the mom guilt if there wasn’t a fun activity, an organized day trip, or a magazine worthy summer snack (because hello, this was pre-Pinterest days- thank God!)  As a seasoned early childhood educator and Mom of three girls who all survived summer breaks through post secondary education, I’m here to tell you to enjoy your young child’s school free days— Because the secret to perfecting super summer memories is all in the un-planning.

Looking back, my girls say that some of their favorite summer memories involved a handful of water balloons that turned into days of entertainment. (I’m not joking- days! They wouldn’t throw them- they kept them, named them, created little water balloon habitats for them out of tissues and shoe boxes, and wept for them when they broke.) My girls spent hours playing store, or performing in home made shows. Some of their best summer experiences were those unplanned afternoons where adventure was created with the spark of their own imaginations. So here are 3 easy steps for un-planning perfect summer memories for your kids:

Time! Your kids need time. I’m talking unstructured, unplanned, uninterrupted time- with no screens within scrolling distance. Not every day. And I’m certainly not telling you to cancel your vacation. But now and then, strike a few things off that list of awesome summer activities and let your kids figure out what their day looks like. If your kid’s typical summer day is buckling in and out of car seats to get from swim dates to bowling to junior tai chi in the park then they won’t get the chance to stretch their imaginations and find out what adventure lies just past, “I’m bored.”

You’ve got to steel yourself. It’s kind of like those parents who sleep train. You know the beginning will be tough, but it will be worth it in the end. And, just like sleep training, you’ve got to trust the process. When the whining and lamenting starts about how very awful this incredibly boring day is, just shoo them back to wherever they came from- the backyard, the playroom, or wherever they are congregating -and tell them to ‘go play’. It’s common, during this transitional phase, to hear lots of groaning and moaning, but trust me! The magic starts right after the last, “There’s nothing to do!”

Warning: If kids aren’t used to stretching their imaginations, it might take a while. But every child has a magic sense of play inside them, and when you give a child time and space, they will find a spark. Not only that, but creativity and imagination, like many things, grow when you feed it. The more practice your kids get at using their imaginations and coming up with their own fun, the better and faster they will get at it. At some point the whining will stop and there will be an eery quiet…Your parent instinct kicks in… ‘What are they doing??’ You’ll head into the room to see spaces being created, characters divvied out, props being gathered. It might look strange at first. What exactly are they doing? You see the spark of imagination ignited in their eyes. That, mom and dad, is playing.

Support the Spark. Nothing supports a spark more than adding a few simple props. If the game involves a store, hand them a few pens. If they are creating a circus, give them an empty box or two. Clothespins, bed sheets, a deck of cards- simple props added to a spark of imagination are like dry kindling to a campfire.

Warning: Don’t butt in! Nothing squashes a spark faster than a well-intentioned adult who takes over the game. “You should add the clips here so the tent is more stable,” will have your kids abandoning the game and reaching for their iPads faster than you can say Fortnite. As a seasoned ECE who’s stepped in too far and squashed a spark on more than one occasion, I’m here to tell you that there’s an art to this. Position a few enticing props in their range, (like placing food within reach of an un-trusting stray) make a broad statement like, “Hey, maybe you’d like to use these,” then leave them bee. You can spy on them from the next room. Believe me, you’re gonna feel your kid’s excitement when you hear them exclaim, “Hey cool! Let’s use these for….” And they are off!

Ignore the Mess. The good part, when my kids played store, was that they created an intricate dramatic play game playing with each other for hours. And I am here to tell you, as I place my Early Childhood Educator cap on, that this type of play is essential for your child’s growth and development, and will make them a better student come September. Children develop problem-solving skills, increase their communication skills, learn to appreciate and deal with multiple perspectives, all while building their confidence as an innovator, and increasing their imagination and creativity. Tell me those things won’t come in handy when put in groups at school, told to work together, come up with an innovative idea for their project…etc.

Okay, so the bad news about this type of high-level dramatic play is that it can trash at least one of the rooms in your house. Not permanently! Just in the- ‘this room looks like it sneezed’ kind of trashed. Teeny tiny ‘price tag’ paper would be everywhere. Every toy and stuffed animal was out of it’s ‘tidied up’ spot and displayed. The mess would make me crazy! But those hours of play were worth it. And honestly, my girls are 19, 21 and 24 years old. There is no better feeling as a mom who no longer tidies up toys, than listening her girls reminisce, “Hey, remember when we played store! That was the best!”

So un-plan a few days, and let your kids create some great summer memories.

Some of my favorite stories about that magical sense of play are:

0439961866

 

The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs by Phoebe Gillman

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/search/?keywords=The%20Wonderful%20Pigs%20of%20Jillian%20Jiggs#internal=1

content

 

My Think-a-Ma-Jink by Dave Whammond

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/search/?keywords=My%20Think-aMa-Jink#internal=1

 

0340988193 Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/stanleys-stick/9780340988190-item.html

 

 

Top 5 Back-to-School Picture Books that Ease Anxiety and Promote a Positive Attitude

 

There is no way around it- whether you have a little one starting school for the first time, or a child heading back to those first few grades, starting school is an anxiety inducer. But your positive attitude towards the situation (and some great picture books) can alleviate the stress and help pump up your child’s confidence and optimism about school.

 

  1. 618RPzbO2WL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg Pete the Cat, Rocking in my School Shoes, by Eric Litwin and James Dean https://www.amazon.ca/Pete-Cat-Rocking-School-Shoes/dp/0061910244

This is a fun easy read that shows children there are lots of great spots in school, and it’s ‘all good’!

 

  1.  51q9Smmke-L._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes https://www.amazon.ca/Wemberly-Worried-Kevin Henkes/dp/0061857769/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472559642&sr=1-1&keywords=Wemberly+Worried

You think you’re worried about school- well Wemberly worries about everything! How will she handle her first day? This is one of my absolute favorites! It provides support, understanding, encouragement and inspiration.

 

  1. willow_s_whispers.jpg Willow’s Whispers, by Lana Button and Tania Howells https://www.amazon.ca/Willows-Whispers-Lana-Button/dp/1554537444/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472560178&sr=1-1&keywords=Willow%27s+Whispers

When Willow is at school her words come out as soft and shy as a secret. But not for long! Willow will inspire young ones to use their own big strong voice in school. This story also builds inclusiveness and empathy for every voice in the class.

 

  1. 61f83lXiPDL._SX439_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg Franklin Goes to School by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark https://www.amazon.ca/Franklin-Goes-School-Paulette-Bourgeois/dp/1771380101/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472560561&sr=1-1&keywords=franklin+goes+to+school

So many emotions swirling around that first day! Even the children who can’t wait to start might find themselves anxious when it’s time to actually head off. This story allows lots of dialogue regarding the realm of emotions we go through when starting school, and illustrates once more, that we are heading off to a great spot filled with lots of new experiences and adventures.

 

  1. 51n2oEIWNQL._SX495_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers https://www.amazon.ca/Day-Crayons-Quit-Drew-Daywalt/dp/0399255370/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472560981&sr=1-1&keywords=the+day+the+crayons+quit

…because, hey, when you’re anxious, you need a good laugh! And I love the message that we have the freedom to think outside the box and create new and exciting things— that’s the fresh start opportunity waiting for your child at school— like a brand new box of crayons!

 

So listen to your child when they tell you about their back-to-school anxieties. Don’t dismiss those feelings. Acknowledge that these are very understandable emotions that will go away in time. And fess up to your child that many of us are feeling the same way during this annual stress-filled transition. But while you remain supportive, concentrate your words, your body language and your attitude on the positive exciting aspects and opportunities of school. Hang on! In a few weeks, we will all be in the swing of things!

 

 

 

Parent Prep- Are YOU Ready for Preschool?

You survived a nine-month pregnancy, 20 hours of labour, years on no sleep and toddler tantrums. So…the start of preschool? You can handle it.
You’ve prepared your child by talking up all the excitement waiting for him; his new dinosaur knapsack is packed. But what about you? How will you feel when your job, as a parent is to walk away for the first time?
As a preschool teacher, I’ve witnessed more than 18 years of dramatic farewell scenes: shell-shocked parents unable to give their upset preschooler a confident send-off because they are suddenly emotional themselves. Letting go is a powerful thing. So prepare yourself.
Beware little ears. Don’t confess your preschool jitters to your friend if Jimmy is beside you watching Dora. Keep preschool discussions with your child-and around him- positive, light and simple.

Have a Plan. And let him in on it. “Mommy’s taking you to school. You’ll have lots of fun. I’ll be back when school is over.”

Know the rules. You probably received a policy manual at registration. Read it. It outlines the program, routine and policies. You’ll know if she needs indoor shoes, or a labeled cup for snack. Don’t promise she can carry Mr. Blanky around, and then find out it’s against the rules.

Prepare for the Kiss-and Fly. The big day! You both march confidently into school. The teacher greets you at the door. Then it hits you like a bag of hammers: “This is my baby’s classroom. And I’m not invited.” It’s like arriving too soon at the departure gate with security telling you to move it. You consider hanging around for a minute. Don’t! Your job is to send the message to your child that school is a safe, fun place. By standing there looking doubtful, you set his radar off: “There’s something to be scared of.”

And the Oscar goes to… Here’s where your high school acting career comes in handy. Breathe. Smile. And say in a calm, confident tone, “Have lots of fun. I love you. I’ll be back when school is over.”

Beware the Velcro trap. One kiss. One hug. Then walk. Do not get snagged in a Velcro grip as your daughter decides she’d rather go home and watch The Wiggles. Stay calm. Her teacher will take her (not unlike removing a kitten from a wooly sweater) and comfort her. Keep walking. I mean it. Mentally block out the crying with a well-practiced mantra such as, “She’s in a safe place.”

Do not play Let’s Make a Deal. This is no time to bargain, so don’t promise a Strawberry Shortcake doll if she stops crying, and don’t cancel Christmas if she doesn’t. And remember, by lingering you make it worse, sending the message: “I cry, Mommy stays; I cry harder, Mommy stays longer.”

Watch those claws. They expect you to leave your hysterical baby while some other adult comforts her? Back off Mama Bear, and trust the teacher. Believe me; we are very good at hugging, reassuring and distracting. The faster your child realizes her teacher is caring and trustworthy the faster she’ll adjust to her new preschool. I promise she will always love you best.

Hold the waterworks. Unless you bring your own mom, no one’s comforting you. Sorry. You can drop the tough act in the parking lot; there’ll probably be a whole group of you. Go have coffee and pass the tissues. Chances are that before the foam cools on your latte; your son will have stopped crying and started tackling his first puzzle.

Don’t count on clinginess. Your daughter might be one of those kids who bounds into school without a backwards glance, let alone a kiss goodbye. Guess what? This may break you heart. Remind yourself that an easy transition is a blessing.

Keep your end of the bargain. When school is dismissed, be there to greet your little scholar, not stuck in a Starbucks’ line up. It’s crucial. Minutes can feel like an eternity to an anxious child-especially when he sees all the other mommies and daddies collecting their charges.

Give it time. Your child may reenact the dramatic farewell scene for a while; three to five weeks of regular attendance is a typical adjustment period.

Your rookie preschooler is entering a new stage of development. And like most stages, it often starts out rocky. Need a reminder? Just reconnect with a new parent with that, “I’m so tired I’m throw-up sick’ look, or one who’s desperate for a toddler to give up the bottle. Trust me, in a few weeks your child’s preschool class will be a room full of happy adjusted children. And your child will be one of them.

These tried and true tips were originally published in an article I wrote in Today’s Parent Magazine, Sept. 06