Off to Big Kids’ School: Preparing for Kindergarten

“I’m a little graduate

Aren’t you proud of me?

I know my numbers and ABCs

I made lots of friends and had fun, too

Now, I’m off to big kids’ school!”

The sweet little ditty my son Benjamin and his classmates sang at junior-K graduation, to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot,” was enough to turn this mama into an emotional puddle. (And don’t even get me started on the caps and gowns.)

I blinked, and five years just flew by. Our baby boy is (proudly) off to kindergarten.

Soon, we’ll be scouring Target and Amazon to check off our list of supplies, and loading up the Kylo Ren backpack. As summer begins and we prepare for The Big Day around the bend, two big questions loom in my heart and my mind:

  • Exactly how much will mama cry?
  • And, most importantly: Is he ready?

While “I’m a Little Graduate” sure is a cute song, there’s plenty more to being ready for kindergarten than counting and knowing the alphabet. So like any self-respecting Google Mom on the cusp of kindergarten, I’ve been reading a lot about the concept of “school readiness.”

As it turns out, there’s more academic research on this subject than there are Legos on my living room floor. To help me wade through it all, I sat down with Dr. Shanda Wells, a licensed psychologist who works with the team at the UW Health Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic at 20 S. Park St. in Madison.

Simply put, Dr. Wells explains, learning is very much a social process.

Studies have shown a strong link between children’s social and emotional skills and their chances for success when they start school. This link, she says, is so strong that it’s actually a greater predictor of first-grade academic performance than family background or the child’s actual cognitive abilities (e.g., the ABCs).

“Kids just can’t learn when they’re struggling to follow directions or if they can’t calm down when they’re upset. And that can have a domino effect on the whole classroom,” Dr. Wells said. “Regulating emotions is super, super important.”

Helping Kids Learn to Regulate Their Emotions

The paradox is, kindergarten is about the time when kids are just beginning to “get” how to do this, Wells notes.

“There are plenty of kids who aren’t going to be as advanced at regulating their emotions as other kids – and that’s normal and totally OK,” Wells said.

Children who get easily frustrated, for example, may handle their frustration by hitting, biting or screaming. But how can parents help foster a better reaction that won’t drive the kindergarten teacher crazy?

“I think the first step is always to reflect to the child and help them identify what they’re feeling – to say, ‘You seem really mad.’ Or ask them, ‘How are you feeling right now?’” Wells says.

“The second step is to help them identify it themselves. We’ve found that naming your emotions is actually a really powerful skill to have,” Wells added. “Just naming it makes us feel better.”

Once your child has found a name for what they’re feeling – e.g., “I’m feeling angry” – you can then help your child problem solve: “We don’t want to throw things when we’re angry. So what else can we do?”

“Kids are usually remarkably good at doing that, even though it’s a pretty high-level skill,” Dr. Wells said. “I’m always impressed with how well children can think through this.”

And you don’t have to wait for an outburst to practice this with your kids. You can even turn it into a bit of a game, throwing out scenarios like, “Let’s pretend your friend Billy got upset and threw something. What would you tell him to do?”

In fact, it’s better to practice these things all the time – not just when your child is melting down at the grocery store.

As Wells puts it: “It’s hard for anyone to encode information if you’re a little activated.”

How to Encourage a “Growth Mindset”

Another key skill for school success is being able to persist on a task, according to experts in child development. Does your child give up easily when he struggles with something new? Or does your child shake it off and give it another go?

In social-emotional learning theory, these two reactions illustrate the difference between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.”

“People with fixed mindsets think, ‘I tried this task. I’m not good at it, it’s not my thing – so I’m going to try something different,” Wells explains. “With a growth mindset, someone tries a task, fails, and says, ‘That’s OK. I’m going to try again.’”

When it comes to learning, Wells says, research shows that kids do phenomenally better when they have a growth mindset.

“So as parents, you really want to actually encourage failure in your child. And you then want to encourage resiliency in them to say, ‘That’s alright. I’m going to try again, anyway,’” Wells says.

But encouraging failure can be tough for moms and dads to do, if your instinct is telling you to intervene, says Dr. Wells. Her advice? Hit pause and just try backing off a little.

“If they’re struggling with something, let them struggle a little. Don’t jump in right away,” Wells explains. “If they do make a mistake or something goes bad – say they spill something or mess up a letter – essentially say, ‘That’s OK. Try it again.’ And allow them another opportunity to maybe spill some more milk.”

“They’re little ones. They’re supposed to mess up,” Wells added. “It’s their job.”

As it turns out, my Benjamin and his junior K classmates at Tanya’s Big House for Kidz already have a lot of this stuff down – whether or not they’re already reading on their own or can count to 100. Together, they wrote a list of classroom rules, collectively deciding what’s most important to make it a “fun, safe and awesome place to learn,” as their fantastic teachers Camille and Jenni put it.

The kids came up with this:

  1. Be KIND
  2. Listen the FIRST time
  3. Be respectful
  4. Keep our body parts to ourselves
  5. We take turns

Rules we’d all do well to live by. Yep – I’m pretty sure all those little ones are more than ready to head off to “big kids’ school.” And Benjamin’s mama just needs to find a good waterproof mascara.

This blog was originally published in 2016. 

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