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Ready or Not, Kindergarten is Coming to A Child Near You by Marion Gillis-Olion, Ph.D.

Every year a major event takes place in the life of many young children – they become Kindergarteners! Kindergarten is no longer the year to get ready for school; it is filled with serious undertakings that affect success for years to come. The better prepared a child is when he or she enters kindergarten, the more successful they will be. So, what’s required for a child to be ready for such a significant undertaking? Two things: children must be ready to learn and ready to do so in a school environment.

What does it mean to be ready to learn? The National Education Goals Panel and the North Carolina School Readiness Goal Team identified precursors to achieving academic success: health/physical development, social/emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development/communication, and cognition/general knowledge. Children achieve these domains first and foremost through interactions with and experiences provided by their parents. Beginning at birth, parents and caregivers can use everyday activities to help their child learn, making the home a child’s first classroom. Reading is especially important as booksharing and reading aloud to your young child will establish important skills. Young children learn best from repetition so read the same books over and over.

Basic skills, knowledge, and abilities can be developed around things every home has. Food, for example, can be used by parents in experiences such as shopping, cooking, and eating to teach a child descriptive terms, vocabulary, early reading concepts, oral language skills, comprehension and analysis, early writing skills, number concepts, geography, physical development, and health. Activities should be tailored to the child’s age. For example, when shopping with a toddler, parents can ask the child to pick up items based on colors. When shopping with a 4-year-old they can ask the child to pick up items that start with a particular letter.

When using everyday experiences to help children learn, parents must be sure to ask age appropriate questions, give direct and explicit instructions, help the child focus and make choices from among a limited sphere of alternatives, and provide suggestions when the tasks become frustrating. They must provide feedback in a manner that builds self-confidence, high expectations, and positive dispositions toward learning which are necessary for children to believe they can achieve – a strong correlate to academic success. Parents must also model appropriate social skills: helpfulness, empathy, attention to needs of others, respect, sharing, and cooperation.

What does it mean to be ready to learn in a school environment? Children must have the social, emotional, and physical skills necessary to succeed in a formal educational setting. These include being able to interact socially with other children and adults, following directions and rules, working independently, taking direction from one key person, and sitting still for up to 10 minutes. Many parents choose to enroll their children in preschool to provide them with opportunities to learn these skills; however, this isn’t the only way a child can develop socially, emotionally, and physically. By exposing children to activities in settings outside the home and involving them with different caregivers, parents can help them grow in these areas. Playgroups, sports, special trips, and lessons all fulfill this purpose. Even visits to relatives can teach children about different rules for different settings. And, of course, many children love to play school, providing parents with a great opportunity to reinforce the realistic demands of Kindergarten.

There are many resources available for parents who want to learn more about ways they can help prepare their child for Kindergarten. Born Learning (www.bornlearning.org) offers information about ways to turn everyday moments into fun learning opportunities. The Partnership for Children of Cumberland County (PFC), established in 1993 to implement the Smart Start Early Childhood Initiative, provides parenting and program information links on its website (www.ccpfc.org) and in its family resource center, the Omni Family Resource Center; and information about programs and services available in Cumberland County in its Family Focus resource guide. Parents looking for more information can also call PFC at 867-9700.

The transition to Kindergarten is a major event in a child’s life. Early childhood educators stress that there is no “one size fits all” method of preparing a child for the transition to school. The best preparation relies on integrating learning experiences into daily life, and when this is done children begin their journey through school with a good roadmap!

Dr. Gillis-Olion is a Special Advisor on Programs and Services to the Executive Director Of Partnership for Children of Cumberland County and is a Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University.