The Doctor Is In
Is Your Child Ready to Start School?
Parents of school-age children know the start of a new school year means a mad dash for backpacks, lunchboxes and school supplies. It also means that this fall, many parents of 5- and 6-year-olds will have to determine if this year is the right year for their child to kickoff his school career.
Parents often worry they may be damaging their child permanently by sending him to school too early or too late. They worry about him fitting in with the other children, if he will like school and if he will excel.
School readiness has a unique set of criteria for each child, but there are a few universal milestones that all children need to reach in order to succeed in school. Parents can also help their children develop skills and behaviors before the start of school.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that success at an early age is based on a child’s birth month. Gladwell argues that children born in the early months of the year are a few months older than their peers when they start kindergarten — or play competitive sports — and these few months make an incredible difference in physical, social, intellectual and emotional development.
Those slightly older children who are born in the early months of the year excel at academics and sports. They get recognized as the children with potential by teachers and coaches and are mentored and praised more than other children. Gaining recognition and special attention therefore encourages these slightly older children to feel better about themselves, and they work harder in order to garner more praise and positive self-esteem.
However, this does not mean that you need to hold your child back until he will be one of the older children in the classroom. You can work with him at home to the develop skills he needs before the start of school.
One of the most important skills necessary for success in kindergarten is the ability to cooperate. Knowing how to make friends, understanding how to participate, sharing and getting along with other children are crucial to be able to prosper in kindergarten. Preschool is a good place to learn these skills, and many children are still acquiring these skills as kindergarten begins.
For the child struggling in the area of cooperating with other children, summer represents a great opportunity to practice these skills. It’s a time when your child can practice with other same-aged children and, if possible, the children whom he will join in the classroom in the fall. For the shy child, knowing one or two children before the start of school can be very comforting and make the transition much smoother. For aggressive children, practicing cooperative play with their soon-to-be classmates gives them the success and self-confidence to continue that cooperative behavior in the school setting.
Another important skill for children to master before starting school is language. By kindergarten, most children are speaking fluently and can carry on intelligent conversations with adults and, more importantly, with other children. If a child’s primary language is not fully understandable to family members, new friends also probably won’t be able to understand him. This can lead to tremendous frustration for the child to communicate his wants and needs. It can cause the child to be ostracized by other children and often results in the child acting out with aggressive behavior that garners more negative attention from teachers.
If your child has a communication issue, you should ask his pediatrician about obtaining a full hearing and speech skills evaluation before the start of school. Taking care of the problem before school starts will lead to a more confident and capable child and a better school year. Once the issue has been addressed medically, it is easier for the school to help with special services if needed.
Another important clue to a child’s school readiness is his ability to care for himself. The daily activities of life that you have been working so hard to teach him — toileting, dressing, feeding himself and cleaning up after himself — are key to children being ready to master other areas of learning. Practicing some of these skills at his new school before the start of the school year can be exciting and empowering. Making school an extension of home makes self-care activity easier.
Organization and Attentiveness
Organization and attentiveness in the classroom are important to ensuring your child has a happy school experience. Preparing for school with your child can help him learn the routine of a school day so the transition feels more natural. Try doing the following:
Play school: Set up a “school” in your living room or a quiet area and sit down at a table with your child and work on a “school project” for 15 minutes. Projects may include drawing and cutting out shapes; writing names with capital and lower case letters on the top of a piece of paper; and reading to your child
Establish a routine: Go over the next morning’s plan verbally with your child: “When we wake up tomorrow, we’ll have a hug, then brush our teeth, wash our face and get dressed. Then we will have breakfast, pack our lunch and then go to school and have a great day.” Help your child choose what to wear and lay out clothes the night before school.
Explore outside: Not all learning takes place in the classroom. Go on a nature walk in the neighborhood and collect leaves, sticks, acorns and feathers.
In addition to help your child develop the skills he needs for kindergarten, there are many activities you can do to help your children be kindergarten ready. In fact, you are probably already doing many of these things in your day-to-day life. Spending a few minutes thinking of the skills that will help your child succeed academically and socially will help you to better teach him to feel confident and ready for school.
Gena Lewis, M.D., and Diane Halberg, M.D., are both long-time primary care pediatricians at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland. They treat children with many ailments including asthma, influenza and anemia. Both are a driving force in pediatric health-care advocacy efforts, training young physicians and ensuring that all children have access to proper medical care. Dr. Lewis received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. She completed her pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Dr. Halberg received her medical degree from The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She completed her pediatric residency at UC San Diego Medical Center. Both women live in the East Bay and have young daughters.