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The Informed Parent

Is My Child Kindergarten Ready?

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on May. 01, 1997

Every year, countless parents face the same dilemma: is my five-year-old (or four and a half, or six-year-old...) ready for kindergarten?

First off, what does kindergarten readiness mean? It means that your child will be able to learn that which is taught in the kindergarten he attends. It also means that your child will be able to interact effectively with the other children and the teacher in that particular school. In general, readiness is dependent on a range of academic and emotional variables. What are they?

Academically, your child is probably ready for kindergarten if he can write his name, count, recognize most letters and demonstrate certain small motor skills, e.g., cutting and holding a pencil properly. Your child should also demonstrate the ability to follow simple sequential directions, have articulate speech, comprehend simple stories, recognize numbers and understand basic comparisons. Your child should be able to tell a chronological story.

Aside from these academic concerns, what are the emotional variables? These refer, in large measure, to "social skills", or your child's ability to relate appropriately to peers and authority figures (teachers). First, your child should be able to share. He should demonstrate a fundamental understanding of and respect for others' property. It is helpful if your child demonstrates a sense of humor, and a curious approach to the world. A degree of frustration tolerance is also necessary. Can he tolerate being unable to immediately master a task, or being asked to delay gratification? Perhaps most important, is your child able to make his needs known?

Many informed parents ask what they can do to help their children prepare for kindergarten. They question whether the play groups and nursery schools have indeed provided sufficient "training". While most do provide valuable preparation for kindergarten, it is in fact your involvement in your child's education, that is the single most critical factor in your child's school-related success. This involvement starts long before kindergarten. Much of what prepares the child for school is learned from parents, including your child's interest in the world around him, his ability to communicate, his ideas about himself and other people, and his attitude toward school, teachers and learning. Your involvement in your child's education is the most powerful statement he receives--about the importance you attach to him, and his education.

Given this premise, there are general guidelines which can be offered to help prepare your child for the "big day". These include:

  • Encouraging your child's independence. Ask him to help with simple household chores. Allow him to select and make his own cereal in the morning. Allow him to choose which t-shirt he wears.
  • Discussing similarities and differences. Which of these objects are the same color or size, smaller or larger, heavier or lighter, etc.
  • On a daily basis, singing songs, reading stories and working on puzzles with your child.
  • Extending "pretend play" sessions with your child (having a "real food" tea party, "opening" a market in the living room for an afternoon, "operating" a restaurant for dinner one evening.) Occasionally invite one of your child's peers to join you in these activities.
  • Implementing "sorting and classifying" activities into your child's daily life. Cut and sort pictures from magazines, "spot" all the red cars on the way to the market, separate coins from his piggy bank together, sort the socks from the laundry.
  • Helping your child "write" letters and draw pictures to be sent by mail to a favorite friend or relative--especially one who will reciprocate.
  • Reading rhymes and encouraging "word play" composed of simple rhymes. "See you later, Alligator; after while, Crocodile" will help your child to recognize similar sounds and simultaneously discover the joy of language.
  • Talking to your child about the approach of kindergarten and encouraging him to talk to you as well. This is a good time to talk about safety issues, interactions with peers, and the "nuts and bolts" of going to school each day. Your child will be encouraged to talk to you about his particular concerns if you establish the model for an open interchange.
  • Finally, some schools offer readiness assessment for those parents with serious questions about their child's readiness. It is helpful to speak with a kindergarten teacher (at the school your child will attend) regarding typical classroom activities, scheduling, etc. This can enable the parent to make a reasoned decision regarding his particular child's readiness. If still in doubt, an educational psychologist can assist you in your decision-making process by providing a formal assessment of your child's readiness. It is wise to consider the first few days of school as the "final evaluation" to determine a child's readiness. Children who cling and cry tenaciously day-after-day, despite all of their parents' and teacher's best efforts, may not be ready to start kindergarten.

The ultimate goal is that your child emerges from kindergarten with a conviction that he is a worthwhile individual who enjoys learning and has positive feelings regarding school. He should become confident that he is a competent student. Those children who start kindergarten before they are able to manage its inherent responsibilities may, conversely, suffer from feelings of intense embarrassment. A sense of failure can have long lived negative effects on both the child's sense of self and his attitude about school. An honest and careful assessment of your child's readiness can ensure that he begins his academic "career" when he is able to successfully master the tasks of kindergarten.

Sandra Smith, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Professor of Counseling Psychology in the Long Beach, California area. She has held a clinical faculty position at the School of Education, University of Southern California and is currently Consulting Director of Educational Psychology for the Pediatric Medical Center, Long Beach, California.

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