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Kindergarten Readiness: More than Academics

Back when this article was just a thought bubble being bandied about an editorial meeting, it started with the broad heading of “Literacy,” with a plan to incorporate Billings Public Schools’ new “Kindergarten Readiness Guide.” What we discovered, both through our first look at this prototype that, in its final form, will eventually grace the fridges of families with pre-kindergarten aged children, and in picking the brains of seasoned kindergarten teachers and elementary school counselors and principals, was that a kiddo being ready for kindergarten is about so much more than how academically ready they are.

Certainly, there are academic components that are important in creating a sturdy educational foundation, but as Central Heights Elementary School Counselor, Maureen Klaboe, M.S., LCPC, explained, “We have children who are fortunate to come to school ready to learn anything and are already emergent readers, while at the other end of the continuum we have children who struggle to remain seated for the smallest increments of time, who are unwilling or unable to follow directions and commands, and have poor emotional and behavioral skills. Acquiring the foundation to build all learning upon is critical.” We asked our panel of educators what they would include on their dream list of the top things incoming kinders should know. There were both similarities across the responses we received, as well as some unique offerings.

Building the Foundation Coming into Kindergarten:

Personal Independence

  • Restroom Realities – Able to use the restroom by themselves, including washing hands independently -SL & PP
    • Note to parents: This also means being aware of the clothing in which you’re sending your child to school. Be aware of their belt, buttons, clasps, etc. capabilities

  • Avoiding Clothing Catastrophes - Being able to put on their coat, shoes, etc. by themselves. “When you have 20 kindergarten students and a teacher has to help each child get ready for recess, the time wasted is huge,” elaborates Ms. Lemelin.
    • If your kiddo doesn’t know how to tie their shoes just yet, then please let velcro be your (and their) new bestie.

  • Timing is Everything – Ms. Lemelin also suggests parents help their kiddo practice eating for a set amount of time, as she notes that their kindergarten students get 20 minutes of “seat” time to eat – not including the time it takes them to line up, come in, and get their food. She has observed that a lot of packed lunches often include items that kindergarten students just can’t open on their own (e.g. Go-gurts, pizza Lunchables-so much cheese on the floor). She encourages parents to have a “practice” lunch with their child, which would include opening their lunchbox, opening everything and seeing how long it takes them to eat; as well as being aware of scooting up to the table and eating over their tray or lunchbox. Oh, and reiterating this lunchroom adage: “Less talking, more eating.”

Behavioral/Social Skills

  • Sharing is Caring – As you might guess, sharing can be a bit challenging for our littles as they’re merging into the full-time classroom setting. Ms. Lemelin reminds us that prior to kindergarten, for many children, the world has been all about them, so “when children don’t want to share or are unkind, we refer to that as ‘age appropriate’ mis-behavior, and a discussion about sharing will help them all learn.” Kindergarten, she adds, is a place ripe with teachable moments.
  • Communication Station – Able to express themselves and identify their feelings, communicate needs, and use sentences that include more than three words. -PP & SL Additionally, Ms. Klaboe shares that over the decades she has seen an increase in behavioral and emotional struggles in their youngest learners, and the meltdowns that ensue when a child perceives that they can’t have their way, or a task seems too difficult and shuts them down, makes them less available for instruction. The subsequent time it takes to de-escalate the situation results in a loss of learning time. As a result, in her lessons with kindergarteners, she teaches how our brain works and about anger management and strategies to help self-regulate and make smart choices about behaviors, as well as mindfulness and self-calming strategies.
    • Thus, the moral of this particular story, is that it starts at home – with parents setting healthy limits, creating a safe space for open communication, and helping their little learn to deal with their big emotions, and respecting an adult’s authority.

  • Boundaries & Bubbles – While some kids have had exposure to other children (and adults) in preschool, daycare, and home settings, others have not, which Ms. Klaboe says can result in a lack of the most basic understanding of cooperation and struggle to navigate the world with others. Ultimately making it difficult for them to make and keep friends, which she points out is an important component in kids feeling connected at school. So, it helps for kids to have a basic understanding of personal space (don’t pop my bubble!), respecting boundaries, and having the capacity to show kindness and respect for others. -MK & PP
  • Following Directions – It’s important that kiddos are able to listen to and follow directions. Dealing with power struggles, says Ms. Klaboe, is an area many teachers find frustrating, as it interrupts teaching and learning time. Indeed, adds Ms. Lemelin, following simple directions is also a safety factor: “When a teacher is telling a student to stop jumping, stop running, or stop putting their hands on another student – it is all about being safe.” She further shares that when students have not had to follow direction from other adults it can be a difficult transition.

Academic Skills

  • What’s in a Name – Knowing and being able to write and recognize their printed name and state their first and last name both supports personal safety and helps to foster positive self-work and independence, explains Ms. Payton.
  • ABCs, 123s – There’s a bit of variation among our experts, but being able to sing the ABCs, count to 20, recognize some letters and numbers, and know basic shapes are all counted as major pluses in terms of kindergarten readiness. As is being able to sit and listen to stories. -PP & SL
    • Tip: Ms. Lemelin and Klaboe note that working on letters and numbers can be as simple as pointing out letters on signs and counting toys, cereal pieces, or bites of dinner.

  • Bookworms – Speaking of stories, it’s been well-documented that reading aloud to our children from birth onward makes a difference in terms of improved language skills and success in school. Ms. Payton explains that “reading aloud daily provides literacy exposure and cultivates an opportunity for a child to develop listening and early comprehension skills.”
    • Both Ms. Lemelin and Klaboe point out that technology is no replacement for the human interaction of reading and conversating together. When reading a book together, it’s as much about “picture-walking” as it is reading the words. (Having your child point out things in the illustrations and guessing what’s going to happen next). On this point, we’ll leave you with kindergarten teacher, Kristin Burckley’s favorite quote: “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”
    • If your family isn’t, they might want to hop on board Billings Public Library’s annual Family Reading Program, happening now!

  • The Cutting Edge – Having the manual dexterity to use pencils, scissors, crayons, and button/zip clothing is essential. Ms. Lemelin shares that every year they’re seeing an increase in the number of students who don’t have the fine motor skills to start school. As such, teachers are spending the first few months (or even the first half of the school year) on those skills that are “mandatory for developmental success but are not tied to academic standards.”
    • Parents can help develop these skills by crafting and coloring at home. Ms. Klaboe adds that anytime you can disguise learning as fun, it creates buy-in for the kids.

  • Drawing 101 – They can draw a picture and are able to tell about a picture -PP

The Importance of Parental Involvement

Over the years we’ve certainly talked a lot about the importance of the parent-teacher / parent-school relationship. Once our children reach school age, it’s all about developing the partnership between those key players. It’s yet another vital piece of the puzzle that creates that solid foundation for all future learning. Indeed, Ms. Payton points to parental involvement – in and out of the classroom – as being crucial to a child’s success in learning and their outlook on the importance of education, it is, she says, priceless.

On the Homefront

  • Reading aloud daily – Together or at Library/book store story times
  • Making attendance a priority
  • Modeling the behaviors and attitudes you want to see in your children -MK

Opportunities to Be School/Classroom-Connected

  • Join SeeSaw or Remind or ClassDojo – whatever communication protocol your child’s teacher has set up.
    • Keep lines of communication open. Ms. Lemelin notes, “If the teacher doesn’t know, they can’t help.”

  • Classroom Volunteers
  • Library Volunteer
  • Field Trip Chaperones
  • PTA

Kindergarten Magic

Finally, we asked our experts what they’d like people to know about kindergarten in 2019…

  • With 24 years of teaching under her belt, Ms. Payton would love to be able to share the “Magic” of kindergarten with the community. With her decades of experience, she understands the value of laying that strong educational foundation for our youngest learners and she has personally witnessed this “Magical Learning” experience, where learning and magic intersect with extraordinary results that are evident for years to come. It’s in this magical land of emergent learning that she feels able to say, “I truly have the best job in the world!”
  • Klaboe wants the community to know that this is a district that wants all children to be excited about learning when they come to kindergarten, “as their first experience will color and shape their perception as a lifelong learner.” Won’t you join in helping to build that stable and solid foundation?
  • Finally, Ms. Lemelin wishes to shine the light on the rock star kindergarten teachers who accomplish so much with their students each year. She concludes, “the growth that our kindergarten students make is phenomenal and working as a parent-teacher team only makes their education stronger.”

Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s February 2019 issue. 

Check out the digital edition, here