Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Getting Children Ready for School

This summer some parents at the beach asked me what they could do to get their pre-K and K aged children ready for school. I had some simple, but very important answers for them: experiential learning, vocabulary development, and a positive feeling about school. Many parents worry about their children being able to count, write, and read before they get into school. That's fine and dandy, and very helpful, but if they don't have the words and experiences to read and write about, it's useless.
Since I've worked with children in all grades from PreK-5, I've been able to notice a lot of patterns. You don't need any fancy research to see that kids who travel and do things know more. You'd be really surprised at how many kids in Central and South Jersey don't know that there are mountains in North Jersey, or how many kids in North Jersey have never been to the beach...and NJ is the 4th smallest state in the US with a total area of 8,722 square miles (and the 9th highest population)!  I remember being in class with a girl (our junior year of high school) when she asked, "New Mexico, is that a country?" Getting kids out of town and all around, even if it's a day trip where you do something for free is important!
I also wanted to point out that parents need to be really careful when talking to their children about animals and going to the zoo. Kids don't know which animals live in the same habitats as others. I learned this first hand while teaching science lab. Even my third graders struggled. They grow up watching cartoons with talking animals and playing video games where animals have human powers! It's very important to talk to your kids about fantasy and reality.

Get children to use their senses. You'd be surprised at how few students can describe how objects physically feel. Quick investigation: Ask a child how something feels or tastes. 50% of the time you'll get the answers, "good" or "bad." Watching something on tv or on a computer screen is not the same thing as experiencing it in real life. We do rubbings in school to help us describe textures. It helps students who have sensory issues to cope with the sensations and it helps all students with descriptive writing and science inquiry.
Work on one-to-one correspondence. Pass out one pretzel or card at a time to each person and count aloud. If students can use one-to-one correspondence for math, it will also help them read! If you really want to teach them to write letters, do it in the sand or dirt. Try shaving cream on the table. Make letters out of objects. Be creative instead of making them hate paper and pencil tasks before they even start school.
And last but not least...that positive feeling about school! This has to start and be maintained from day one. You're in trouble if not! If you know your child is going to have difficulty, bring him or her to meet the teacher once or several times before school starts. Believe me, teachers spend a lot of time getting their classrooms ready in the summer and they will be willing to do whatever they can to make the transition easier. Play on the playground at school and invite children who go to the school to play and talk to your children about school. Practice the walk or drive to and from school while talking about what will happen. Allow your child to decide on a backpack, lunchbox, clothes, etc. Sing a special song about school before drop off and after pick up. Pack a special lunch with a note! Remember that young children don't have a good concept about time until about second grade. Most primary grade teachers post a visual schedule for students to know what to expect. Give them clues about when school will be over. (Two "Backyardigans" until gym then one "Blues Clues" until snack.) And NEVER use school, writing, or "Your teacher is going to be mad" as a threat!

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