As a new group of Australian children start getting ready to go to "big school", Jane Taylor* remembers feeling worried before her daughter Lisa* started kindergarten. While she had coped fine in daycare and pre-school due to her teachers' supervision, Jane was anxious about how Lisa would handle a new and unfamiliar environment because she was small in stature, naturally shy and found it difficult to open food containers without help.
Jane says she spent all summer helping Lisa experiment with various sizes and types of lunchboxes. "I was also prepared to do little visits to the school to familiarise her with the layout so she would be more confident. Unfortunately the school was not accessible outside term time," she recalls. Eventually Jane's preparations paid off and Lisa had no trouble adjusting to her new school.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a successful transition to school sets up a child to succeed in academics and professional life in the long term.
Ronit Baras, a parenting expert, believes that most children are not prepared for school and unlike Jane many parents don't give as much thought to how their children will cope in a new and different setting. "Parents think that with time their children will figure out what they need for school all by themselves. In reality, children need agents to learn and time can do nothing at all if it passes without the child experiencing certain situations."
Jenny Atkinson, a primary school teacher and school transition specialist says, "Many children starting kindergarten have gaps in their skills, for example, they can use a keyboard but not a pencil. It's important for parents to understand that skills are linked and it affects how the child will learn at school."
What skills does a child need to learn in order to transition easily into kindergarten? Both experts mention social skills, communication and language, self control, literacy and numeracy, independence, physical aptitude and motor skills. While this list may seem like a tall order for many parents, both experts say spending even a few minutes with your child every day before they start school will help them learn these skills.
Baras explains, "If your child can draw for three minutes only, stay with him or her to extend to two more minutes. If you do this repeatedly over two weeks, you can get them to stay to ten minutes easily. By adding one minute to each session, you can increase their attention span to 30 minutes. In kindergarten, children need to be able to focus on one activity independently for approximately ten to fifteen minutes only. By practicing at home, you will help your child do the same successfully when he's in school."
Both experts identified the following skills as crucial to a child starting kindergarten.
According to Baras, social settings are important for children and practice is needed to learn how to cope in a group without receiving special, individual attention. As a parent, it is important to frequently introduce your child to social interactions with more than five children. While playing with a friend or two helps in developing social skills the range of interactions is often limited. Spending time with about 12 to 25 children is the best setting and offers a variety of interactions for your child to practice their social skills.
Atkinson recommends setting up play dates once your child has made new friends because it's great for establishing friendships outside of school. "Let them take a little toy to school which gives them something to play or talk about with a friend," she says.
Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills is the ability to use our fingers to do different tasks and will have a direct impact on your child's ability to write says Baras. "Set some time aside daily with your child to engage in fine motor activities like cutting with scissors." Encourage them to cut straight lines, curly lines and shapes, cook, bake, and help your child measure out quantities of ingredients. Other methods include using glue to paste magazine photos, working with beads, Lego building, mosaic work with paper or glass, tearing paper, drawing and holding pencils.
When trying to teach your child new activities keep it short. Their attention span is still developing so you'll need to match the length of the activity to their attention span. "If they are getting too frustrated or disinterested, wind it up and try again later," advises Atkinson.
A good way of building a habit of sitting still and paying attention in your child is to read books together. Discuss the stories and characters and point to what's happening in the pictures.
As parents, think about the activities happening during the day at kindergarten. Practice the things your child might struggle with on their own like Jane did. Sit down with your child and eat together, he or she can practice eating from their lunch bag. Let them open their 'easy open' containers or packets and learn which foods are for 'recess' and 'lunch'. Atkinson says, "You can do this timed with school breaks so that your child becomes accustomed to eating at those times."
Another way to encourage independence is to have your child pack their lunch bag, drink bottle, hat into their school bag and practise carrying their own backpack.
Teaching children to recognise their feelings and expressing them is critical and will increase their emotional intelligence and confidence says Baras. "Teach children that it is ok to feel upset, disappointed, not in the mood, not to like things and ways to manage those feelings."
Kindergarten is a place where children need to learn to fit in with a bigger group of kids with less individual attention. When they express themselves well, they will be able to manage overwhelmed feelings much better, and survive changes and emotional struggles without parents being present to fulfil those needs adds Baras.