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Somewhere in a big room with a long table and a bunch of chairs, some guys decided the way to fix our failing education system in America was to cram all the curriculum down to younger children quicker and sooner.

These visionaries went on to conclude that it would be a good idea to test all those children and, based on those results, reward some schools and penalize some teachers. Teachers felt the pressure so they taught more children faster. They needed more children to be more ready when they started kindergarten in the first place. So parents felt the pressure and decided to hold most of their children back until they were “ready” for kindergarten.

If you have a preschooler right now you know all too well about this pressure. Bet you’re stressed about whether your child will be ready. Hoping your school will bring him up to speed? Me too. But there’s plenty parents can be doing at home to help prepare their children for kindergarten.

Most parents immediately think of numbers, letters and colors when they think of early childhood education and kindergarten preparedness. But any preschool or kindergarten teacher will tell you, there’s much more to it. There are social and emotional elements that are much-less quantifiable than the cognitive aspects of development, but just as integral to a child’s performance in school.

The good news is there are many ways you can help prepare your child for kindergarten in your home on a daily basis. You don’t even have to go out of your way really. Just be a bit more alert to learning opportunities. Keep in mind that in order for the machine that we prefer to call our schooling system to operate effectively, children will mostly have to be able to focus, follow directions and respect others.

That’s where you come in:

If you demonstrate to them that you respect their interests and abilities, they will be more eager to share them with you. Of course they are all different and all develop different skills at different rates and times. Funny- no one told those guys that at the long table with chairs when they decided to cram everything down to our five-year-olds’ brains. Good thing our children have us around to help.

An early childhood educator told me this story a week or so ago: parents wanted to enter their four-year-old into kindergarten before he was old enough to make the school district cutoff. To get him in, he had to pass some tests. But the child was rejected because he failed to walk up a set of stairs using alternating steps. Even the educator was puzzled. What does being able to walk up stairs using alternating feet have to do with kindergarten success?

Being ready for kindergarten has less to do with academic knowledge and more to do with maturity. While being able to go up and down stairs efficiently doesn’t indicate directly future school success, large muscle coordination is a handy indicator of overall development. Children who are “ready” for kindergarten are children whose bodies and brains have matured to a point where children can manage themselves in school. Self-management is more important than alphabet skills.

So kindergarten entrance assessments focus less on literacy and math and more on physical and emotional control. If your child will be starting kindergarten this fall, it’s not too late to encourage more growth in those areas. Here’s how:

  1. Large muscle coordination. Get your child out and running around every day. Show your child how to skip and practice hopping on one foot, walking on a string, and jumping from stepping stone to stepping stone.
  2. Fine muscle skill. Find excuses to practice drawing and writing letters. Use lined paper and show your child how to sit letters and numerals on the line. Make sure your child can recognize and write her own name. Practice turning pages in a book, manipulating small objects, and using scissors.
  3. Following directions. The ability to listen and understand and then to do is a complicated skill that is at the heart of school success. Make a game of giving each other complex directions and executing them correctly.
  4. Thinking through problems. Not everything is always clear. Help your child to learn to make educated guesses, to estimate time and number accurately, and to anticipate what might happen next in a particular situation. Avoid being ready with an answer to every question. Instead, at least sometimes answer a question with a question: “Hmm. What do you think?”
  5. Persistence and conscientiousness. Doing “a good job” requires seeing a task through to the end and doing it well. Support your child’s desire to do well by setting her tasks that are challenging without being too difficult and by helping her to admire her own success.
  6. Getting along. Kindergarten children must be able to wait their turn, share scarce materials, and be helpful to each other. They need to know how to avoid conflict and how to resolve conflict without fighting or tears. Make sure your child has opportunities to interact with other children and to grow in his ability to get along.

Every parent wants her child to have a happy kindergarten experience. Some parents think that being a reader is an indicator of kindergarten success. While early reading certainly is nice, it’s not all that important. Far more important is being mentally and physically ready for school.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.