Preparing for Kindergarten, According to a Kindergarten Teacher

If you want to start from the beginning, check out Part 1.

I have no doubt that my mother is answering a specific calling and has been gifted accordingly. I will try not to gush too much because she will be mortified if I do, but let’s just say… Mrs. Reese has a reputation. She’s in her twenty-first year of teaching kindergarten, with a few more in third and first-grade. Until her campus got an Instructional Coordinator two years ago, she was the GT (Gifted & Talented) coordinator campus-wide. She’s won awards for being amazing and all that jazz. Bottom line: SHE KNOWS HER STUFF.

In terms of the academic pressures parents of preschoolers feel, my mom has reassured me many times and put my anxieties to rest. I felt it selfish not to offer you that same peace.

So friends, these are Mrs. Reese’s thoughts on prepping for kindergarten at home:

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1. When people ask you what they need to do to get their child ready for kindergarten, what do you tell them?

  • Read! Read! Read! Make it fun. Go to the library; go to story time; make it a part of your daily routine. Ask a few questions as you read that are higher level: not just “What color is her dress ?” but open-ended questions like, What would happen if…” Oral storytelling is important too. Tell them stories about your life when you were little, stories about their grandparents, make up silly stories, etc.
  • Put your phones away. Talk to them. Have conversations. Spend time together. It doesn’t have to cost money or be thrilling. Play games together and take walks. Instead of handing them your phone to distract them in the grocery store, discuss what you’re buying and why, compare the cereals, fruit, meat, ask their opinion, describe everything. Instead of turning on a movie every time they climb into the car, talk about all the things they see outside. Language is so important. 
  • Stress behavior. What would Jesus want you to do? What does it mean to be kind—how does it look? How does it sound? How does it feel, to you and to the other person? Children who know how to treat others are miles ahead of the class!
  • Model thankfulness. For everything– when things are good and bad. Ungratefulness is innate in children. They have to be taught contentment and gratitude, things like saying “thank-you” when they get one cookie, instead of complaining about not getting two. Explain to them how that makes you feel.
  • Practice teamwork. Make sure your children help around the house. Give them jobs and responsibilities. Emphasize the idea of being a “team.” Let them do things for themselves and praise them when they are independent. Doing everything for them is not doing them any favors.
  • Create structure in your day. Kindergarten will be a much easier transition if they are accustomed to routines and schedules. Have a set bedtime and rest time. Children appreciate clear expectations, followed closely by clear consequences.

2. Other than being “smart,” what characteristics are most helpful for a child’s success in the classroom?

Ability to get along with other children—to share and be kind. They’re five and very egocentric. They truly believe the whole world revolves around them. But parents need to constantly teach and reinforce that we care about others; we think about how others are feeling; we have empathy for others. That’s a word we discuss constantly in the classroom. How would that have made you feel? That is how you made him feel. Try to help them understand that actions can be hurtful, that words can be hurtful.

Children learn by watching — so if parents create a narcissistic environment in their home, kids will follow suit. If they see that their parents care about others and treat others with respect and compassion, they will too.

3. What about the characteristics that are the most challenging?

I’m fine with children who don’t know their letters. I’m fine with children who can’t count. I’m even okay with children who can’t sit still. What is so hard is children who will not obey and don’t think they have to obey, children who have no concept of authority. It’s obvious that they run their homes. I have had parents tell me, “We don’t know what to do. He just won’t do what we say.” If that continues, you are not helping your child in any way. You are setting your child up for struggle.

4. What advice do you give your parents that are struggling with discipline at home?

I tell them about a conversation I had with a wise mentor when I was a young mom. He told me, “You have until about five or six-years-old to teach behavior. After that, it is an uphill battle.” And he was right. After those ages, it gets really hard to undo bad habits and disrespectful attitudes.

Children need to know from the very beginning who is in charge, who is the boss. They need to know the precise unacceptable behaviors and KNOW that if they do those things, there will be consequences (not threats). Every. Single. Time.

Don’t be afraid to start over!! If you find that you haven’t done that well, it’s okay to sit him/her down and say, “Listen. Mommy and Daddy have not done a great job of making clear what kinds of behaviors we expect from you and what is unacceptable. We are sorry. But we are going to be making some changes and from now on…. ” and establish some family rules and definite consequences for breaking those rules.

Kids appreciate structure, boundaries, clear expectations. They feel safe and secure when they know someone else is in charge. Chaos is not only hard for the parent, it’s detrimental to the child.

Practice what you preach. Are you telling them it’s important to read, but then watching TV all day or playing on the computer? Are you encouraging them to be kind, but then you are unkind to others in front of them? They will pick up more on what you DO than what you SAY. If you want them to have integrity, you must have it first.

Lastly, ask for help. If you have done everything you know to do, go to someone else. Seek out a wise friend, a counselor, a doctor, someone that can give you some guidance so that you can fix this now, rather than in the teen years when the consequences are much weightier.

5. Have you seen students benefit from an atmosphere at home that emphasized play rather than instruction?

A couple of years ago I had the daughter of an Early-Childhood Education professor at the local university (and was a bit intimidated). When we did our beginning of the year assessment, I was shocked to find that she didn’t know all her letters. She probably didn’t know half of them. I was so proud of her mother. When I asked her about it, she explained, “She just wasn’t interested. She wanted to play, and I knew that was what her little brain needed anyway, so I never pushed it.” By the end of the year, she was reading at a 2nd grade level and tested as “Gifted and Talented.” AND she was well-liked because she had developed valuable social skills while playing — like sharing and being kind. She didn’t need to be working on phonics as a 4-year-old. When it clicks, it clicks. And it will click. You don’t have to push it. Before they are 6, let them be 5. Before they are 5, let them be 4.

6. When looking back at students that later flourished, can you identify common themes among them?

One thing Jim [her husband, my dad] and I identified was the ability to stick with hard tasks: perseverance and GRIT. We’ve both read a couple of books emphasizing that our current testing systems are failing us because they only measure one thing – academic intelligence, which is a very narrow lens and does not accurately measure potential. We don’t take into account integrity and character, which are just as, if not more so, crucial to success than IQ.

I’ve seen that when learning comes naturally to a student, they get accustomed to it being easy, so when they are faced with difficulty, the willingness to keep trying and push through frustration is more indicative of long-term success to me than if they can get stuff on their first try. Eventually they will be faced with hard stuff. How will they respond? Kids that keep trying and don’t give up surpass everybody!

 

I hope this puts some minds at ease, specifically if you feel like your child is trailing academically at three-years-old. He is learning. She is learning. They are just doing it in their own way, not ours.

When it comes to the anxieties of motherhood, my mother is my Xanax. I pick her brain all the time and am so glad I could share her with you. If you have any bonus questions, send them my why. I’ll be happy to get back to you with her answer, or do a “Part 3.”

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On Making Our Toddlers “Kindergarten Ready”

My 3-year-old loves baby dolls. Very rarely do we leave the house without one hooked under one little arm, a diaper bag dangling from the other. She wants to be a “mommy” when she grows up so that she can “go to the grocery store all by [her]self” and “do the dishes.” Girl’s got ambition — which I fully intend to exploit in 5-13 years. Taking care of her babies is just about the only activity that keeps her interest longer than five minutes.

I remember being alarmed at her early disinterest in learning … or at least what we think of as learning. Charlee had always loved to read, but early on, Hattie would slam the cover shut any time I even tried to crack a book. And the few times I attempted to teach her sign language as a baby, she would scream at me and yank her hands away, as if she was trying to tell me, I do not have time for silly things like this. There’s a whole world out there to explore.

While she can now engage long enough to complete a book or even a few (though she asks approximately 18,000 questions per page, some completely irrelevant), she’s still not interested in sitting down and working for long stretches.

Occasionally, against my better judgment, I get anxiety about the fact that she doesn’t know many letters or how to write her name or that she still gets that eleventeen-17 range jumbled when counting. I drive by the Montessori Preschools that I cant afford and think, “I should really work on preschool curriculum with Hattie so that she has a chance…”

But then I think back to my education degree and remind myself that Hattie just turned THREE, and this pressure that has been created to have my kids literate by the age of 4 and performing long-division by 5 and composing symphonies by 6 WAS NOT created by teachers or child development researchers but by the pressures of a flawed system and competitive parents.

I remember one of my professors discussing the new environment into which we are sending our students. This is no longer a world in which students who “know the most” will be the most successful. Information is now immediately accessible, so education is less about “knowing stuff” and more about creative thinking, application, cooperation, leadership skills, and all of that other intangible, “outside of the box” stuff.

Guess what!? These are things cultivated in free play, not rigorous preschool curriculum.

Then I think about my biblical duty as a momma: to make little, tiny Jesus impersonators. That changes things. Because Jesus is not remembered for his smarts but for his wisdom. He’s not remembered for his SAT score or for how many multisyllabic words he used in the Sermon on the Mount. He is remembered for his desperate pursuit of outcasts, his passionate cry for justice for the oppressed, and his counter-cultural inclusiveness — EVERYONE can be part of his club.

What if we taught our kids that while academics are important, because working hard at everything we do is important, school is not just a means to a good career but an incredibly convenient mission field? They have an awesome opportunity to desperately pursue outcasts, passionately cry out for justice for the oppressed, and be counter-culturally inclusive — make sure EVERYONE is a part of the club. They get to BE Jesus to the lost and lonely every single day. And if schools are anything like they were 4 years ago when I taught, there are PLENTY of lost and lonely.

When we push academic success at such an early age (or at any age), not only do our children lose valuable time to play and learn through osmosis, but we can unintentionally put SMART on a pedestal, high above KIND, SELFLESS, or COMPASSIONATE.

While at a bible study on motherhood, our incredibly wise mentor mom said, “When I walk into a parent-teacher conference, I push all the papers aside, and say, ‘I don’t want to know about grades. I know their grades. We can fix grades. I want to know what kind of person they are when they aren’t with me. I want to know if they are kind. I want to know if they play with the lonely kids at recess. I want to know if they sit with the lonely kids at lunch.”

In the long run, are we just dying for our kids to be rich and famous? To be the CEO of a company? Is financial success at the top of our priority list?

If not (or even if so), let’s just let our three-year-olds play. Let’s all just calm the heck down about Kindergarten readiness, because if you’re worried about your baby being ready, that’s a good sign that he will be ready. Instead, let’s make sure they know that sharing is JUST AS important as counting, cooperating is JUST AS important as phonics, that we care more about them being like Jesus than we do about them knowing a lot of stuff.

Let’s show our kids that we care more about them being the kindest than we do about them being the smartest.

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While I was agonizing over this article and trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say, I flipped over to Facebook for a second so that I could stop using my brain for a hot second and THIS was the first thing that popped up:

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It was as if God was saying, YES. THIS is a message that you need to share. Thanks Jenn for posting — you were unknowingly encouraging me.

 

 

If this topic interests you, click to read this interview with my kindergarten teaching momma, Jody. She discusses what she she has identified as the most important characteristics in incoming kindergartners… and those that aren’t.