We’ve all experienced at least one benchmark test in our lives – our drivers’ license, the college entrance examination, a professional certification test, etc. With a good sense of what would be required to pass the test, we studied and successfully achieved our license or certificate. But what happens when there is no manual, no test prep company to help us understand what it takes to be successful? This is a question that beleaguers the parents of young children when it is time to send their son or daughter off to school, “What can I do to help her be ready?” You may be surprised to learn that our answer doesn’t include studying sight words or memorizing math facts. No, instead we reinforce the nurturing of solid, research-based principles of healthy child development.
You’ve probably been hearing and reading about child development since you first learned you were about to be a parent – qualities including independence, communication, social skills, and physical well being are familiar to you. These may not immediately sound like the qualities you associate with school success. But after decades of teaching and evaluating children, I can assure you that these tried-and-true tenants of child rearing are the keys to a secure, thriving young student. Let’s take a look at each one and consider some ways you can help ensure your son or daughter will be “ready” for school.
Communication: It sounds so simplistic, but it is our interactions with our children that build this important skill. Using language to describe everything from objects, to events, to feelings is a good place to start. Don’t worry about not having “intellectual” explanations for the more abstract concepts – it is the repeated experience with words that builds communication. Providing narratives for our activities raises communication to the next level. Talking through simple events like making lunch or deciding which clothes to wear teaches children volumes about sentence structure and word usage, while building vocabulary. Don’t shy away from thinking out loud about solving a problem or resolving a dispute. Educators call this “modeling”. Not only does it build language, it also gives our children insights into higher level language comprehension.
We have all encouraged our children to, “Use your words”, and this is constructive input. But we also want to build their ability to appropriately use and understand non-verbal communication, as well. Help your child to observe facial expressions and think about what that child or person might be feeling. Help tune her in to how others react to her words and actions and hypothesize what those non- verbal messages are saying. Everyday experiences offer rich opportunities for this, including play dates, the grocery store, and favorite TV shows and books. As a value added, this experience will also help your child begin to develop empathy.
Social interactions: Every parent wants her son or daughter to have friends and to be a good friend, to be able to negotiate conflict, and to have the skills to work cooperatively and collaboratively with others. While these abilities used to be more critical on the playground or the ball field, they are now integral to success in the classroom. Current trends in education emphasize approaches such as project-based learning and collaborative problem solving. Successful students now need to work effectively as team members. That ability relies as much on positive social skills as it does on individual academic competence. Skills vital to collaboration include attending to and listening to others, offering and accepting feedback, engaging in discourse and debate, and understanding individual and group accountability.
We can begin to lay the foundation for these very grown-up sounding skills before our children ever enter the classroom. Young children naturally gravitate to dramatic play or “make believe”. Taking on different roles fosters an understanding of others and different perspectives, which in turn leads to empathy and problem solving. Turn-taking activities can be introduced to toddlers and should stress patience and attending when it is not the child’s turn. The “first you, then me” rhythm of turn taking reinforces the pattern of conversation. Cooperative activities follow, and these could include working with your child to bake cookies or to build a structure – the key here is that all involved make a contribution to the end. We all know that sports play a role in children’s physical well-being, but T-ball or youth soccer also teaches the value of effective communication, working toward a common goal, and managing frustration and defeat, all essential to the development of positive social interactions.
Independence: While it’s important for our children to be positive team members, it’s also vital that they are strong individuals, and that requires promoting their independence. When our children are young, this often means we have to provide them with the scaffolding, or the necessary structures, to safely investigate and experiment their surroundings. Because parents are instinctively wired to protect their children, this teaching is often more difficult for the adults than for the children, but critical nonetheless.
The first hurdle for parents is to resist the urge to rescue. You might have to bite your tongue as you enter the kitchen to find your son up to his elbows in the peanut butter jar as he proudly makes his own lunch. Or you might have to turn away as your child and her friend sort out a dispute. It is difficult to watch your child’s frustration grow and not try to offer a resolution, but those experiences – and your trust and confidence that it will be ok – are critical to developing independence. We also want to give them opportunities to make decisions that are of importance to them. This could mean donning a sweatshirt and a tutu to go grocery shopping, or eating waffles for lunch, but in these instances we have to overlook imperfection in favor of respecting and praising their decisions, however embarrassing you find them. Finally, after a summer at home, saying goodbye to a parent to climbing on the bus or entering the classroom can be daunting for young children. The term separation anxiety is sometimes used to describe this difficulty. We know anxiety arises from uncertainty or the unknown, so make sure your child understands what to expect. Explain the flow of the day and answer all of his questions with patience and reassurance. Many parents find it helpful to establish some sort of ritual that accompanies the separation. Rituals provide predictability and comfort, so think of one that works for you. Finally, practicing saying goodbye and being away from your child, starting with small increments, will build the confidence that you will always come back or be there at the end of the day.
Physical well-being: We have already talked about the benefits of team sports in developing communication and collaboration skills, but we can’t overlook the importance of physical exercise on cognition and learning. There is scientific evidence to demonstrate that getting our blood pumping stimulates our brains to work at peak performance, also enhancing attention and focus. There are other physical activities that translate into success in the classroom, as well. Engaging your child in structured forms of exercise such as the martial arts , tennis or gymnastics have also been shown to lessen the features of ADHD. Games like Simon Says help children attend to and follow multi-step directions, painting at an easel or doing “wheelbarrow walking” develop core and upper body strength and contribute to improved fine motor skills.
With all this discussion of physical activity, we also have to keep in mind the critical role of rest. Today’s children tend to be as over-scheduled distracted as their parents, so it can be a challenge to set aside the 9-11 hours the typical young child needs nightly. However, not only does sleep make your child more alert, studies have shown that sufficient sleep supports the consolidation of memories, which clearly translates into enhanced learning.
The bottom line is that you can build academic readiness in your young child through activities that he or she will enjoy, and where you can have fun too!