Recently, I got a request from a friend to help her prepare her son for school. When she went with him to soccer practice, she realized he was on his own, not really following the coach’s instructions or mixing with the other kids. Then, when she registered him for school, she met parents who told her about their own kids and she felt she was neglecting her son by thinking he would learn everything he needed at school. When she asked me about the academic requirements, she was a bit surprised when I told her that other skills were as important, maybe even more important, than reading and math.
The first day of school is a very happy moment for every family. If the new student is not your first child, you probably know the drill. The excitement is still there with less anxiety. But if this is your first child, you can feel the excitement bubbling in your stomach in anticipation. The sense of pride is mixed with worry.
Is my child ready for school?
Am I ready for school?
First timers, parents and kids alike, can ease the process of starting school by preparing ahead of time and using the right focus. They should start the preparations early and do not rely solely on the school’s orientation days.
Many parents believe that time is the main teacher. They think that once the clock hits the right year, month and day, their kids will figure out what they need and be ready for school all by themselves, so they do not take the responsibility on the preparation. Children are not prepared according to their age. They need an agent to facilitate their learning and this is done with many trials and errors.
For kids to be prepared for school and make a good use of what schooling offers, they need to have six major skills:
- Ability to separate from their main caregivers
- Strong fine and gross motor skills
- Good attention span
- Good social skills
- Ability to express themselves
- Basic recognition of the alphabet and numbers up to 5
Most of these skills require an agent, time and practice. Parents who say, “He will do it in school”, “She will grow out of it”, or, “It’s the teachers’ responsibility”, practically guarantee their kids will not be ready for school.
Teachers in the school system have 25 to 30 students in their class. They do not have the time to help every child practice their skills and they cannot cater for your child’s individual needs. The gaps among kids increase every day they spend at school.
Children who are ready keep progressing and have extra time to struggle with hard new concepts. Those who are not ready struggle every day. They go into “catch up” mode, fall behind and may be labeled as “slow learners” or worse. Unfortunately, as a special education teacher, when I say they may be labeled, I speak from experience :(
If you are wondering what you can do to help your child, you will be happy to know that you have many options, available free, and together with your love and patience, you can confidently prepare your child for school.
First Day of School Preparation List
Here are some tips to help your children develop the skills that will make them successfully transition into school life.
Healthy separation from parents
For children to be open to learn, they must feel safe when they are away from their parents. Healthy separation from parents is the foundation for their ability to absorb information.
If they find it hard to separate from you, their development is limited. Kids go through this separation gradually and starting on the first day of school is too late. This process takes time and it is healthy to do it little by little.
Organize play days and leave your kids for a short time, then increase the time until they can play without your presence for a few hours. If you have family members or very good friends that you trust, encourage your children to sleep over.
Every successful experience away from parents increases the child’s confidence and feeling of safety and security when their main caregiver is not around and will make the transition to school smoother.
Fine motor skills
The process of developing fine motor skills is very similar to helping babies eat with a teaspoon. It’s messy at first, and then they work it out.
Fine motor skills are the ability to use our fingers for delicate tasks. They require good hand-eye coordination The more we practice them, the more delicate jobs we can do. This will have a direct impact on your child’s ability to hold a pencil and write.
Dedicate some time every day to fine motor activities, like cutting with scissors (cut straight lines, curved lines and shapes), cooking and baking with your kids. Let them measure quantities, use glue to paste magazine photos, work with beads, build with Lego, do mosaic with paper or glass and learn to tear paper. The more you do, the better.
Gross motor skills
Gross motor skills are the ability to move our body with coordination, control and flexibility. They require good body-eye coordination and a developed proprioceptive system. This ability is essential to brain development and the effective transition of information between the two hemispheres. It has a direct impact on the ability to absorb new information, store it and retrieve it later on.
Much like fine motor skills, starting to work on gross motor skills just before school is too late. Children must try a wide range of physical activities since the day they are born in order to develop good gross motor skills.
Play catching a ball, throwing a ball, aiming a ball at a target (bucket or basket), kicking a ball and bouncing a ball. Run back and forth, run with obstacles and run backwards. Jump on two legs, forward and backward. Jump from different heights (not too high at first, remember to make it gradual), jump rope, play hop scotch, stand on one leg, balance on a beam, step up and down a step or a box, walk on toes and heals, step over a ladder on the floor and do cartwheels. The more you do, the better.
Attention span and concentration
Attention span is the amount of time your child can concentrate on one activity. School requires this skill from Day One. At school, children initially need to be able to focus on one activity independently for 10 to 15 minutes. If your child has this attention span, school will be easy. If not, you can still help them develop this ability.
First, measure the attention span over a week with a variety of activities. Watching TV and playing a computer game are NOT suitable activities to measure your child’s attention span. Measure how long your child draws, plays with toys, plays with dough, cuts with scissors and plays with friends (without adults supervision).
If your child can do these things for 10 minutes, great! If not, do not say anything about it. Just focus on stretching that attention span further and further.
If your child can draw for 3 minutes, stick around and offer your presence and encouragement for 2 more minute. If you do this daily for 2 weeks, you can get to 10 minutes easily.
Adding just one more minute, then one more, can help bring kids’ attention span to half an hour, even those you suspected having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD or ADHD). It is very rare to find real ADD or ADHD in 5-year-olds. Such a diagnosis is more likely due to the conflict between the natural behavior of a healthy, curious child, and the expectations of the child’s parents.
Good social skills
Good social skills are essential in the success of the kids in school. Kids who struggle with social skills do not fit in. They are frustrated in a group environment and have a hard time in class and during breaks. They are very isolated, because they do not have the emotional stamina to cope with social interactions.
The better equipped kids are with social skills, the more they will enjoy and learn at school.
Although it is tempting to say that kids either have or don’t have social skills, this is something we can help them develop, regardless of our nature and theirs. Getting along with others, being able to connect, work in a group and sharing can always be improved.
School is a great place to learn social skills, because it provides other children to practice with. However, teachers have limited resources and time. When they dedicate energy to giving children individual, special attention in order to help them develop social skills, they take it away from focusing on academic development, so it is always better to work on social skills before school starts.
As a parent, it is important to introduce your child to social interactions with over 5 children. Please note that playing with a sibling, or with a friend or two, helps develop social skills, but the range of interactions is limited. Without enough social practice, having to handle 25 new classmates can be overwhelming.
Get your kids into activities that require group interaction, like team sports, playgroups or dancing in a group. Children need to learn to share, to compromise, to overcome competitiveness, take turns, join in, be patient, give compliments, have manners, offer help, use good body language (smile, eye contact, listening posture), and they can only learn to do these things with practice.
Self-expression is important skill that children need in order to survive the changes and emotional struggles at schools without their parents being there to fulfill their needs. Teaching children to recognize their feelings and expressing them is very important. It will increase their emotional intelligence and their confidence.
Encourage your kids to express all their feelings and thoughts, not only positive ones. Teach them that it is ok to feel upset, disappointed or not in the mood. Give them permission not to like things and teach them ways to manage those feelings.
Teach your kids to name their feelings and rate them. School is typically the first place where children need to learn to fit in with a big group of kids with less individual attention. When they express themselves well, they can manage the overwhelm much better and get help from their teacher when they need it.
Basic alphabet and number recognition up to 5
On their first day of school, students should know the alphabet and recognize the numbers up to 5. Recognizing letters and sounds requires a long time of practice without pressure. As much as you may dislike this thought, most kids come prepared with this knowledge (some kids already read booklets with short stories) and without it, your child will fall behind, because the time dedicated to the basics in class may not be enough for them.
Get a workbook, make or purchase card games, and work on recognition of letters and numbers, quantities and beginning sounds. Make sure your child knows how to recognize his or her name and preferably write it down. Children with this basic knowledge may not be at the top of their class, but they definitely won’t be at the bottom.
By working with them in advance, you make sure that if they need more time, they won’t be given any negative label for learning difficulties. Needing time and more practice is never the child’s problem, but always the problem of the system that did not give them that time.
Launch your child into school like a rocket
School will take 12-13 years of your child’s life and yours. It is better to start it on the right foot. Emotionally ready, well-prepared children can enjoy this important period of their life with their parent’s help. Remember, like a rocket uses most of its fuel during launch, parents need to give their kids’ the biggest boost when launching them into “school space”. If your child is prepared for school, the ride will be smoother and the sky will have no limits.
Happy first day of school!