Preparing your kids for a successful school year
By Susan Tulino
Oh, kindergarten. Many of us remember our very first day of school fondly — the excitement of shopping for school supplies, packing lunch boxes and waiting for the yellow bus to round the corner. Boarding the school bus was often our first taste of freedom from our parents’ sides.
But that freedom comes with questions and unknowns, and the first day of school can be a major source of anxiety. Anastasia Williams, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and medical director of pediatrics at Novant Health UVA Olde Towne Pediatrics, explains how you can prepare your child for kindergarten.
“The first day of kindergarten is a big transition,” said Dr. Williams. “It should be an exciting time, but it can also be scary or traumatic if a child is not ready for that transition.”
Preparing for the Change
The first step in setting your children up for a successful transition and school year ahead: establish a routine.
“The first day of school shouldn’t be the first time a kid recognizes there are certain times for naps, lunch, play, etc.,” said Dr. Williams. “Implement a routine at home and pay attention to how your child reacts to it.”
Attending open house events where you can meet teachers can help you familiarize yourself with the specific schedule your child’s class follows. Understand that not every school is a good fit for every child. If you’ve noticed your child has extreme difficulty with routine, you might want to consider options outside of a typical classroom structure.
“Knowing your child is key,” said Dr. Williams. “But as parents, you also need to take responsibility. If at home there is a loose or nonexistent routine, you can’t be surprised if your child struggles with sitting at a desk and following a schedule for breaks, activities and meals.”
Physical and Developmental Evaluation
A child’s health plays a critical role in their overall success and ability to learn.
“To learn, children need adequate nutrition, sleep and physical health,” said Dr. Williams. “We encourage parents to cook well-balanced meals at home, minimize sugar consumption, ensure children are drinking plenty of water, enforce bedtimes and encourage more active time than screen time.”
An annual check-up should be scheduled before school starts to make sure your child is physically healthy. In addition to checking weight and height, pediatricians may also check for asthma, allergies or other conditions and address any developmental or behavioral concerns.
Most schools expect kindergarteners to have a basic grasp on language and math concepts. By age four, kids should be able to:
- Speak in clear, complex sentences
- Name basic colors and shapes
- Understand the concept of time and basic schedules (like when breakfast, lunch and dinner are eaten)
- Follow 2-3 part commands
- Recognize words such as “stop”
- Identify letters and numbers
- Spell their name
- Know their phone number
- Run, hop, kick and throw
“Encouraging basic skills before the first day of school will help you understand how your child learns and better prepare them for learning in the classroom,” said Dr. Williams.
Play is Foundational
Dr. Williams also stresses the importance of play between the ages of two- and four-years-old.
“Children who learn how to engage and interact with others before entering kindergarten are often more comfortable and do a better job participating in the classroom,” said Dr. Williams. “Letting kids play helps them learn the importance of sharing, taking turns, winning humbly and losing gracefully. These skills are the foundation for healthy learning, inquisition, exploration and lifelong positive behaviors.”
According to Dr. Williams, just as much emphasis should be placed on interpersonal skills as on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Doubts About Readiness
If you feel you’ve done everything you can to prepare your child, but they are still extremely anxious, Dr. Williams advises speaking with your pediatrician.
“It’s a pediatrician’s job to work with families to create a well-balanced, healthy, positive child, so when parents come to us with concerns, we want to help,” said Dr. Williams. “Typically, we assess children based on their current situation, explore parents’ concerns and then discuss options. Sometimes, if needed, we refer them to child psychologists or behavioral therapists, other times we recommend social therapies such as visiting the library more often or joining a class or playgroup.”
Another thing Dr. Williams stresses: it’s OK to be a little bit anxious — the first day of school is a big change. It’s when feelings of anxiety start to outweigh excitement that you should consider consulting your pediatrician.
“Some parents want the perfect child, but a better ideal is a child who is healthy, thriving and well-adjusted,” said Dr. Williams.