Each year, about 4 million children enter kindergarten in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For parents, it is often hard to know if a child is ready for kindergarten or even how best to prepare them.
“Kindergarten readiness is not just about learning your letters, numbers and shapes through flashcards,” said Cora Causey, Ph.D., instructor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education. “There is so much more that parents and early childhood educators can do. We need to look at social-emotional, cognitive and language development in order to best prepare children for interaction in the classroom.”
Each child develops differently, but there are certain aspects of development that a parent can help progress. Causey encourages parents to meet children where they are in their development.
Executive function, relationship development, coping and self-regulation play important roles in a child’s overall development, but most importantly in their social-emotional development so that they can handle a collaborative environment, like kindergarten. This includes sharing, taking turns, and learning when to speak and listen, and to do this respectfully.
“Everyday situations provide a platform for parents to work with their children in executive function,” Causey said. “Asking open-ended questions fosters the natural curiosity and wonder that kids are born with. You can do this as you are riding in the car, going to the grocery store or any other activity throughout the day.”
Find ways to have positive child and adult interactions that consist of back and forth conversational loops.
“Parents should not throw words at children, but create more of a narrative by asking questions,” Causey said. “Our goal should be to have more face-to-face interaction, rather than pixel-to-pixel interaction.”
Coping and self-regulation can be tough for children at this age. Acting out situations can help a child learn to deal with a situation. This can be taught through role play, playing with figurines or even through books.
“At times, we find that children receive rewards for bad behavior,” Causey said. “When a child is given a tablet or phone, they are not learning how to self-regulate in these situations. As a child enters school age, they are not as easily able to cope with challenging situations, because they have not learned these skills.”
At home, parents and other family members should be modeling the behaviors of making friends, sharing or following expectations. Children will learn from the models and be better prepared for situations that arise at school.
As a child learns a new skill or way to cope with happenings around them, the caregiver can identify books that relate to this issue and lead by example. When a book comes to an arc in a situation, families are able to discuss what is happening and the behavioral choices that can be made alongside each one’s impact on how the situation ends.
“Bibliotherapy shouldn’t be overused in children, but it is a great way to talk through new experiences and challenges,” Causey said.
Screen time, especially as a reward for bad behavior, can have a negative effect on social-emotional skills, according to Causey. Family members should take the opportunity to talk about recovery and how a proper response to a situation looks. Ask the child questions to gauge comprehension.
“The primary caregiver should always stay in communication with the teacher,” Causey said. “There will be an instance that arises, and it is important that you work through it as a team. It is important that the caregiver, teacher and student work together to come up with a proper plan of action that can be adhered to by all parties.”
So often, there is a parent-teacher conference where they come to a solution and move forward without the child’s input. Having the child present allows for discussion and working together for a common goal to better ensure the solution will work for everyone.
How a child learns, connects with experiences, and uses symbols and images relates directly to their cognitive development. Causey suggests enhancing cognitive development through literacy opportunities and mathematical language to prepare children for the kindergarten classroom.
Reading aloud to your children is the best way to cultivate cognitive development, according to Causey. She suggests asking your children questions as you read books related to the content, illustrations or even the child’s feelings.
“When reading, we should consider what and how we are reading to our children,” Causey said. “Reading a traditional book versus reading a book on a tablet is significantly different. When reading a traditional book, we are able to interact with our children on a more personal level. Tablet reading often has interaction built in that doesn’t allow for engagement at that child’s pace.”
Early math experiences through qualitative mathematical language help with a child’s cognitive development. Causey recommends using household items to improve cognition. For example, when a child is in a sandbox and pours sand in two cups, ask which one has more.
“In using this type of language with children early on, research has shown that children will progress in mathematics and literacy more fully,” Causey said.
Children should have the opportunity to listen, speak, read and write as they develop. This helps children further their language development orally. Everyday conversations help children understand language.
“Primary caregivers typically focus on the reading and writing aspect of language development,” Causey said. “It is equally important that they have listening and speaking opportunities during the early years to positively affect later literacy learning.”
Easy tips for listening and speaking with your child include
Reading a book but stopping to look at the pictures and talking about them organically:
When traveling from one destination to another, asking questions about what the child sees; connecting it with additional questions, like colors, smells, noises, etc.
In the grocery store, taking time to look at the produce and asking questions about taste, texture, color and other noticeable features
By creating conversational loops in natural situations, children are taught to think, creating a higher level of cognition. Ask higher-order thinking questions, letting the child come up with an explanation. As questions are asked, give the child time to think.
At 4 and 5 years old, children should be able to have one conversational loop. For example, if asked a question, the child should come back with an answer. Then, the child should be able to ask another question or come back with additional information to the answer.