Twelve Tips for a Terrific Kindergarten Experience

By Adam Eisenson*

Editor’s Note: Four of our nine grandchildren start kindergarten this year, so we thought it’d be a perfect time to get some advice from our favorite elementary school teacher, Marc’s son, Adam.

Even if you’ve armed your child with love and support, and even if you’ve both been looking forward to this milestone for a long time, walking away from her on the
first day of kindergarten is bound to be a heart-wrenching experience for each of you.

To ease this transition toward independence for my children and yours, I’ve spoken to parents, other teachers, school administrators, and pediatricians to
compile these tips:

1. Wait Until Your Child Is Ready.
Kindergarten is the gateway year for children, the time when their feelings and future opinions of school begin to take form. Although most schools have specific age requirements and strict cutoff dates, not all kids are ready for kindergarten as soon as they’re eligible.

Unless your child has the social, emotional, and academic maturity needed to flourish, waiting another year may put her at the top of her class for years to come. Many kindergartners are held back because they’re not ready to do first grade work. No matter what label the school puts on its transition program for students needing another year, not being promoted with the rest of the class can cause emotional problems. Even
five-year-olds think being “left back” means there’s something wrong with them, that they’re “stupid.”

Be honest with yourself. If you have even the slightest doubt about you child’s
readiness, speak with a teacher or the principal at the school. They can help you make this extremely important decision.

2. Meet the Teacher.

You’ve checked babysitter’s references, interrogated daycare providers, checked credentials at the nursery school, and spent sleepless nights hoping your “don’t talk to strangers” lessons have taken hold. So don’t put your child in the hands of a teacher you’ve never met.

Many schools are open during the summer, and arrangements can be made to visit the school with your child before classes begin. Teachers are usually available the week before school starts, so I recommend you shoot for that. Although extremely busy getting ready for the new term, most teachers will happily take a moment to introduce themselves and to invite the family in to see the classroom.

Then over the course of the school year, make it a point to develop a relationship with your child’s teacher. Attend your child’s open house, and if at all
possible, participate in class activities from time to time.

3. Stick to a Routine.
Kindergarteners benefit from consistent routines and structure. What seems mundane to adults is often comforting to children. Kids from homes with little or no structure are frequently flustered by it at school, where:

  • School starts at the same time each day.
  • Announcements are made at the same time each day.
  • Children have lunch at the same time each day.
  • Most teachers even teach their core subjects at the same time each day.

To help your child get the most out of his classroom experiences, set up these three routines:

  • A regular bedtime.
  • A time to do homework.
  • A regular wake-up schedule that leaves plenty of time to comfortably prepare for the day, without rush or stress.

Obviously, there’ll be times when the pattern will be broken (a late night out, playdates, a chaotic morning, etc.). But it’ll be better for your child if those were the exceptions, not the rule.

4. Protect the “Big Sleep.”
From the day your child was born, you’ve probably battled at bedtime. You’ve snuggled, bribed, and maybe even driven your car in circles … anything to get your child to sleep!

Most doctors agree that a kindergartener requires at least 10-12 hours of shut-eye a night. They also agree that it’s better to have a long solid evening rest than a long afternoon nap followed by a six-hour evening sleep.

Even if you absolutely cannot get your child to sleep by 8 p.m., you can make sure that activity has ended and “resting” has begun. No one benefits from sleep deprivation: not you, not your child’s teacher, and certainly not your child.

5. Serve Brain Food.

Good nutrition is vital to a good education. Children who don’t absorb enough nutrients don’t perform at their best. Ideally, you should feed your child a nutritious breakfast before school and pack her a healthful lunch. Also ideally, your child should eat what you pack. But school is not an ideal world.

Many students get breakfast, as well as lunch, at school. But if you think the school will make sure your child is eating properly, you’re wrong. It’s amazing how much food is wasted at school, and how much junk food is eaten! One day, in a school of about 650 students, a class weighed the wasted food and discovered that 114 pounds of food with vital nutrients and six gallons of milk had been tossed.

Eight hours is a long stretch for a growing child if he’s fueled only by junk food and soda pop. If your child eats at school, join him one day for breakfast or lunch. You might be amazed by what you learn.

6. Respect the Importance of Homework.
Homework is a tool that even kindergarten teachers use to reinforce that day’s lesson, and also to teach good work habits, responsibility, accountability, and liability. You can help most by having a set time and a quiet place for your child to complete her work, and by being available to assist in case she’s having difficulties with an assignment. Making sure the work is completed by your child and returned by the due date, will get her on the right track for life.

If your son tells you that he left his homework at school, suggest he call a friend … or let him face the consequences. When he’s “too tired,” and doesn’t finish an assignment, it might be tempting to do the work yourself. Don’t! Homework helps children learn to manage their time. Routinely completing their own assignments gives kids a sense of accomplishment.

Kindergarten, like all grades, has a set curriculum that teachers must follow. Ask for a copy of the curriculum, so you’ll be able to keep track of how your child is doing with the subject matter. On the other hand …

7. Remember that Harvard Is a Long Way Off.
Yes, school needs to be taken seriously. But we’re talking about kindergarten here, folks, not law school! Pressure comes to all of us soon enough. Don’t introduce it to your 5-year-old. Being a kid is a hard enough job already.

Children are intuitive and know when they’ve disappointed their parents. Not living up to a perceived expectation to be “the best and the brightest” can be a terrible blow to a child’s feeling of self-worth. Don’t pressure your child to do more than he can.

Every child is different and learns differently. Keep giving yours positive reinforcement when she tries her hardest. If you have any concerns about her progress, discuss them with the teacher.

8. Find a Comfortable Balance.
Ours is an overscheduled, frenzied society. Some children are so busy, the family minivan has become kitchen, desk, and changing room. Yet until they graduate, the number one job for students is school. Children who know that their parents will let their homework slide for soccer, ballet, gymnastics, Scouts, or Tai Kwan Do, don’t take school as seriously as they should. Encourage your kindergartner to concentrate on school, first.

If that’s going well, let him sign up for one scheduled after school activity, maybe two. That’s more than enough for a 5-year-old. (As he matures, if his grades are good, you can let him take on more activities.)

Leave time in the week for impromptu playdates, family activities, and just relaxing. School is hard work. Your child will benefit from some down time every day.

9. Work with the Teacher on Discipline.
By the time she starts kindergarten, your daughter should know she must be respectful to teachers and classmates. Still, occasional misbehavior is to be expected and anticipated.

When it occurs, today’s teachers have limited recourse. They can talk to the child, assign extra homework, keep her in during recess, send her to the office, or call home.

Teachers don’t look forward to calling parents to say that little Joey hit someone or threw a toy. If you get such a call, don’t immediately blame the messenger! Listen carefully, ask questions, and make sure you understand the issue. If appropriate, discipline your child to reinforce the teacher’s authority. Even kindergarteners can understand that actions have consequences.

10. Avoid the “White Rabbit Syndrome.”
Despite always checking his watch, the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland was always late. And despite his furious rushing about, he never had time to get everything done, let alone sit down and relax.

Today’s parents are very busy. It’s hard to find the time for all the things we need to do in a day, let alone the things we want to do. But, now that your child is starting school, and even though it’s REALLY HARD, try to make time for each of your children, every day. Do homework, read, sing, play, or even watch TV (their shows, not yours) with them. As you wash their hair or peel potatoes, talk to them about school life, theirs and yours. While folding laundry, practice skills they’ve learned in school, like counting, colors, sorting, and so on. Chores might take a little longer, but they won’t be dull.

11. Insulate Your Child from Your Problems.
Many children live with one parent, and whether we like it or not, families are very complicated these days. It’s not your child’s fault if you’re a single parent, if you have a lousy marriage, if you’re divorced, or if you’re re-married. Whatever your situation, let your child and her education be the family priority. So if you and your partner are yelling at each other in front of your child, stop it. If physical or severe emotional abuse is involved, contact a domestic abuse counselor as soon as possible by calling the National Domestic Violence/Abuse Hotline – 800-799-SAFE.

As much as possible, handle your marital problems politely, never use your youngsters to “get” your ex, and always put your children’s needs first. That will help them develop successful relationships, even if you’ve had trouble in that department.

12. And One to Grow on …
Your child needs your support, but so does her teacher! We’re losing a lot of great teachers because they don’t get the respect and support they deserve – NOT because of the low pay. There was never a lot of money in teaching!

The teacher and others who work at the school want to help your child grow and learn, but they can’t do it without you. So get to know the people who are responsible for your child when she’s at school. Let them know that you would appreciate learning about your daughter’s progress, that you want to help your child have a great kindergarten year, and that you’ll do whatever you can to help.

Make sure you give your child a loving send-off on that landmark first day of kindergarten! A feeling of independence and the ability to both make mistakes and learn from them are two of the best gifts you’ll can give your children.

*Adam Eisenson, a fourth grade teacher, is the author of The Peanut Butter and Jelly Game, a picture book that helps children in grades K-3 think about the difference between “needs” and “wants,” and the virtues of careful spending. He’s also a freelance writer, the father of two boys (one of whom just started kindergarten), and Marc’s son. His essay, “Traveling the Economic Highway,” appeared in our Issue #37.

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