5 must-have skills for kindergarten success

By Lana Button on August 17, 2011
Attention parents of preschoolers: If you’re spending a lot of time over the summer coaching your children on counting and reciting the alphabet, take a breather. Your time will be better spent on teaching your children a few key non-academic skills to help them make the transition to all-day learning (whether that’s in kindergarten or Grade 1.)

What kind of skills?

“Those that foster independence are the most important skills to have when entering kindergarten,” says Linda Savel, veteran kindergarten teacher at St. John School in Burlington, Ont. As a registered Early Childhood Educator, I’ve also done time behind the kindergarten curtain and have witnessed the struggles, the frustration (and the downright shock) of rookie kindergarteners adjusting to life at school.

Today’s kindergarten curriculum is stuffed with exciting academics, and classrooms are packed with very young students. Children with strong self-help skills are able to focus on these academics and start off on the right foot.

We‘re accustomed to taking care of our kids. We wipe their noses and zip their jackets, but many of us don’t realize how much we ‘over-do’. (And let’s be honest; it’s a lot faster and more efficient when we do it ourselves!) But you want to set your child up for kindergarten success. So consider how your child will handle the following tasks when you’re not in the room. Don’t panic if they can’t do any or all of these things come September. But you can nurture these skills at home to make the transition to all-day school smoother for everyone.

Skill #1: Getting dressed

Your child’s first school challenge will be met in the cubby area every morning, every afternoon and as many as three recesses. They’ll deal with shoes, boots, coats (and before you know it – snow pants, mitts and hats). I’ve seen many a meltdown as children wrestle with buckles and zippers and pulling cuffs over mittens.

After spending the summer in shorts and sandals it may be time for a refresher course! So give your family lots of time before hustling into the van, so your child can practise dressing independently without being pressured. Clare MacMillan of Tower Hill, N.B. had double the challenge of preparing for kindergarten when her twin boys, Cameron and Phillip, started school last fall. With the bus picking the boys up at 7 a.m. there’s not a lot of extra time in the morning. But Clare’s boys got themselves dressed. “I just made sure I gave them plenty of time – they definitely needed it!” Having been an educational assistant before the boys were born, Clare knew what would be expected when they got to school. “I knew they needed to do it themselves.”

Out the door. A great way to foster your children’s independence is to give them some say in picking their clothes, but make sure you do a test-run before school, because not all zippers are created equal. Your child can be the coat room champ and the first one on the playground if his coat has a quality zipper with an easy-to grasp tab.

Easy feet. You may be tempted to purchase those cute lace-up sneakers, but if your child can’t tie them tightly or properly, save them for the weekend and go for slip-ons. Otherwise, your child will spend a good chunk of the day shuffling along with laces dragging, be the last one out of the coat room, or be one of 20 children waiting for the teacher to help – again!

Skill #2: Being responsible for belongings

From bringing home forms and bringing back library books, to remembering backpacks from the bus, there are suddenly lots of things to monitor and remember.

Cubby control. Children will have a bin or a hook where they are expected to keep their things at school. Managing this new space can be daunting for someone who’s always had someone do it for them. So back off at home and let kids pick up after themselves. Let them bring their own things in from the car, hang up their coat, put their shoes away. Give them a designated spot for their backpack so they can start great organizational habits.

Backpack management. Every day your child’s backpack needs to be checked for letters from the teacher, forms, library books and lunch bags. Do this with kids, not for them.

Skill #3: Bathroom success

I know, your child has been ‘trained’ for years; which is exactly why many parents don’t consider the bathroom an issue. But believe me, the kindergarten washroom can be a challenge.

I’ve got to go! Many children have relied on a parent or caregiver to tell them when to visit the washroom. Give your child ownership in this department so he can start thinking for himself.

Hold on a minute. In a class full of children, kids will sometimes have to wait their turn to go to the washroom. Teach kids to not wait until the last minute before indicating they have to go.

Clothes call. I realize those tights match perfectly with the headband, and those jeans are super cute, but can your kids undo the button or get the tights down quickly on their own, especially if they really have to go? Clare recalls sending her boys to school wearing stylish belts that looked great with their jeans. When the clothes came home in a bag she realized they weren’t so practical. Send kids to school wearing elastic waist bottoms – especially in September.

Clean sweep. Teach your kids to wipe efficiently. Some parents still assist with occasional bathroom visits. But children are on their own in kindergarten. Give them plenty of practice with solo wiping and handwashing.

Skill #4: Eating without help

Lunch (or nutrition breaks as some schools call it) is like a game of beat the clock. In 25 minutes or less can you wash your hands, get your lunch, open everything, eat, and tidy up? It’s hard enough to eat without spending too much time chatting. Imagine if you can’t open a zipper or unscrew a Thermos lid.

Opening act. Can your child open every buckle, clasp, zipper and snap on all those fancy pouches and containers within the time limit? Practise at home.

Bums in seats. Make lunch at home a ‘sit down affair’ where nibbling and roaming isn’t permitted. Most lunch rooms are chaotic and children are not allowed to wander around.

Cutlery 101. Can your child use utensils, including gauging how much to put into their mouth at one time? Give lots of opportunities to practise this skill. No more ‘helping’ in this department.

Contain yourself. Test-drive the new Thermos. It’s great to send him to school with last night’s spaghetti. But digging pasta out of that container can be tricky! If you plan on sending a container full of soup make sure he can manage broth and a spoon without giving himself a bath!

Drinking challenge. Opening juice boxes and milk cartons can be tricky. The child that can pry open her own milk container or spear her own juice box is sure to get the first gold star from her teacher!

Napkin know-how. Go for lunch and have your child do everything, from ordering the meal to putting the trash in the garbage. And if she gets ketchup on her face, don’t wipe it off! Start a conversation about wiping your mouth while eating. And model it yourself.

Tip: Play the ‘school lunch’ game. Pack lunches for your child and a friend (to add a social challenge). Set the timer for 25 minutes and see how they manage. Sit on your hands for this game so they really do everything themselves.

Skill #5: Following directions

Kindergarten expectations incorporate lots of self-regulation; children learn to put the breaks on impulses, wait their turn, and follow directions.

Step by step. Listening and following directions gets better with practice. Start with simple tasks at home, such as, “Please put your shoes away.” Then add more steps: “Please put your shoes in the closet, hang up your coat and put your hat on the shelf.”

Wait your turn. The kindergartener spends chunks of his day waiting; waiting for everyone to join the group, waiting in line for their turn, waiting for the teacher to give direction. It’s good practice for your child to experience waiting patiently for something at home, instead of having immediate gratification. They might wait for you to get off the phone before having dessert, or wait for you to finish the dishes before you play a game.

By Lana Button| August 17, 2011

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