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Preparing kids for kindergarten should be joyful, not stressful

| Monday, May 6, 2013, 7:23 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Pippa Meyer, left, and Hailie Kiehl work on stamping images onto paper in Cindy Peck's kindergarten class at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell on Friday, May 3, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Noah Berberisch works on writing his words in Cindy Peck's kindergarten class at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell on Friday, May 3, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Logan Devlin and Alora Sanchez build houses with blocks in Cindy Peck's kindergarten class at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell on Friday, May 3, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Zach Obbink matches the numeral to the number of dots on a page in Cindy Peck's kindergarten class at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell on Friday, May 3, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Cora Kobelenske works to match shapes of buttons to the shapes on a strip of paper in Cindy Peck's kindergarten class at Bon Air Elementary School in Lower Burrell on Friday, May 3, 2013.

The first day of kindergarten often brings with it sweaty palms and lumps in throats — and that's just the parents.

The backpack, crayons and glue sticks are bought, but is your child really ready for school?

Questions of “What will the teacher be like?”, “Will my child get lost in the building?” and “Does he know what he needs to know?” haunt many parents.

But local educators encourage anxious parents to take a deep breath and relax.

The most important thing parents can do to prepare their children for kindergarten between registration and that first bus ride is to read to them and talk with them.

Parents register their children for kindergarten in the winter or spring before children start school. Children typically need to be at least 5 years old by the first day of school to be eligible to attend kindergarten.

Once a child is registered for kindergarten, he or she goes through a screening process, where certain skills are assessed by the school staff.

The screening sessions vary greatly from school to school, but some common tasks children are asked to perform include:

• identifying colors and shapes.

• counting to 30.

• recognizing numbers and upper- and lower-case letters.

• knowing their first and last names, address and phone number.

While some schools informally screen children on these criteria and more, others merely read a story to the child individually and ask a few questions about the book.

The important thing to remember is that no child “flunks” screening.

“Screening gives us a broad scope of the child as a learner,” says Amy Lenart, principal of Bon Air Elementary School in Burrell School District. “It's a one-day indication of some skills.”

Bon Air staff members will meet with parents individually during the school's screening days next week to talk about how their child did in the session.

If parents want to work on one or two skills with their child during the summer, they can. But if not much progress is made, it's not a concern, Lenart says.

“Our teachers are prepared to work with students at all levels,” she says.

Keep the basics simple, fun

The summer leading up to kindergarten provides an opportunity for parents to casually build on the language skills that are such an important part of the first years of schooling.

Reading to your child — both fiction and nonfiction books — exposes the child to their world and broadens their vocabulary.

“With a solid vocabulary in place, learning to read is so much easier for children,” says Cheryl Soloski, Armstrong School District's Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for grades K-6.

“Get your child involved in the basic, everyday things,” Soloski says. “Plant a garden with them, take a walk with them and engage them in good, rich conversation.”

South Butler Primary School principal Greg Hajek recommends reading to your child about an outdoor topic, then making up an explorer's club-type of activity to go along with it.

“Take a mini-hike, dressed like you're on safari. Talk about what animals, bugs and trees you see,” Hajek says. “Then get your child journaling about what they've seen. Kids can draw pictures or pretend to write,” and those activities are the beginning steps to literacy.

Learning activities for young children should be fun and informal so don't aim for rigorous sessions with flashcards.

For practical math activities, Soloski recommends activities as simple as counting the steps with your child as you climb the stairs.

Soloski also recommends labeling paper plates with numbers and asking your child to put that number of items, such as Cheerios, on the plate.

“You can do the same thing with putting a certain number of objects in different paper bags,” she says. “Do things that are fun and developmentally appropriate,” Soloski says. “We're not talking about sitting and doing paper and pencil activities here.”

Another kindergarten skill parents can work on with their young children is following multi-step directions, Hajek says.

Telling a child to take an object, such as a Frisbee, hide it in a certain place, and then report back to the parent for the next set of instructions builds a child's ability to remember steps and will serve her well in school.

Ian Miller, principal of Fawn and Fairmount primary centers in Highlands School District, says children learn best through play.

“Don't be continually drilling your child,” he says.

Something as simple as drawing pictures on a sidewalk with chalk can be a great learning opportunity.

While your child is doodling, start a conversation about what he or she is drawing, and talk about what letter that particular item starts with. Then ask them to name another item that begins with the same letter, Miller says.

Lenart suggests encouraging your child to look for specific letters on street signs and on cereal boxes to reinforce letter recognition and to let your child see the pages as you read to him.

“Reading together teaches children a lot of the fundamentals, like letters make up words, and words make up sentences,” she says.

Ready to be away from home

Parents can help their children prepare emotionally for kindergarten, too.

Whether half-day or full-day kindergarten, the idea of being away from home every day can be frightening for a young child.

Educators recommend having an older neighbor child or friend share their positive school experiences with kindergarten students before the school year begins. Peers often carry more weight than adults in convincing a wary child that school isn't anything to be afraid of.

Parents can also bring their children to the orientations and school events that elementary schools plan to introduce new kindergarten students to the kindergarten teachers and familiarize them with the classrooms.

“These events are important because they help ease children's anxieties and give them the opportunity to see the building where they'll be spending a lot of time,” Lenart says. “It also introduces them to the people — their kindergarten teachers — who will become very important to them.”

She says some schools, such as Bon Air, invite preschool teachers to these events so that some children will see a familiar face.

South Butler County School District's Primary School has a half-day kindergarten program in place. While half-day students are only spending roughly 2½ hours away from home each day, it can still cause some anxiety in the young children. Hajek suggests that parents talk to their kindergartners about the amount of time they will be at school in terms they'll understand. “Tell them that kindergarten is the length of a movie,” he says.

“Start talking to your child over the summer about going to kindergarten,” Miller says. “Go past the school building, play on the school playground.”

He also recommends taking advantage of the free summer reading programs that many community libraries offer. These programs offer a taste of what kindergarten will be like and begin to socialize children who have not been to preschool or daycare.

Even after meeting with teachers and taking tours, some students still will be upset on the first day of school but that's okay.

“Some children will be anxious, some will be sad and crying, but the teachers don't mind and they are prepared to handle it,” Miller says. “It's OK to hug and kiss your child, say ‘I love you' and walk away. The teacher will get the child engaged to have fun that day.”

Jill Henry Szish is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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