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The social side of kindergarten readiness

Photos by Monkey Business Images.

Mesa mom Jenessa Moore is part of a ritual that dates back to the mid-1800s. However, the ritual today looks dramatically different than it did when the first kindergarten was formed. Moore’s daughter Leia will be entering kindergarten in the fall. She and many other Arizona parents are busy preparing their children for that first day of school.

“We started from a pretty early age getting number and letter recognition down,” says Moore, who brings her daughter to an in-home preschool twice a week. Moore says she chose the preschool for the social interaction because Leia picks up academics very quickly. “Now that she has been around a classroom-type setting, I think she will adapt a little easier once she actually starts kindergarten,” adds Moore.

According to kindergarten teachers, Moore’s emphasis on social development is well-placed. Of course, in an ideal world, students would enter school with both academic and social readiness. However, the social side tips the teeter-totter: Social skills carry somewhat greater weight in the kindergarten-readiness balance.

Sarah Simpson, kindergarten teacher at Griffith Elementary School in Phoenix, knows firsthand the power of these “soft skills.”

“I’d rather have a student come in who believes they can accomplish things, who will work hard, who knows how to be a friend, than a student who knows all their letters and numbers but can’t get along with anyone else,” she says. Simpson, who is a National Board certified teacher, says to build a classroom community where you can teach effectively, students need to possess social-emotional skills.

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Leah Zilberman, kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Desert Jewish Academy in Chandler, concurs.

“Maybe a child can recognize all their letters and count to maybe 1,000,” says Zilberman, “But I would rather the kids understand, for example, that we need to share.”

Zilberman explains that when kids come to kindergarten with academic skills, it’s a bonus. “But if the kids aren’t able to sit and listen to a story,” says Zilberman, “that takes almost more work than teaching them to read or write.”

Here is a well-rounded approach to boosting kindergarten readiness skills.

Social relationships

“Share everything” is the first directive in Robert Fulgham’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

“In an ideal world, I would love it if the students understand that they are part of a community,” says Zilberman. She cites the importance of listening when others are talking and understanding that everybody gets a chance to play.

“I want them to realize they are part of something bigger than just themselves.” Simpson adds the importance of learning how to handle a situation that doesn’t go their way. “It’s important for kids to have lots of experience playing with other kids — not just siblings — and to learn to work out conflicts themselves.”

Which leads to…

Independence

“If you help your child be self-sufficient, to take care of [himself or herself], that will lead to success,” Simpson says. She also believes self-sufficiency will transfer to learning. “A lot of parents want kids to be kids, and that’s great,” says Simpson, “but they don’t need you to open their milk carton every single time.”

Of course it is important for students to ask for help when needed, Simpson says but they should be permitted to do as much as they can for themselves. “They can help others, too.”

Zilberman adds that it is important for children to have some sort of responsibility at home, “even if it’s just putting their plate in the sink after dinner or putting their toys away.”

A learning attitude

Simpson encourages a “growth mindset” in her students. Based on the work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, the term growth mindset means students understand that effort is worthwhile. The opposite is a fixed mindset. Children with this mindset believe if something is hard, it means they are not smart and they might as well give up. A fixed mindset can happen when parents label their children “genius” or “smart,” says Simpson.

“What we should say instead is, ‘Oh, look at how hard you worked. I see the strategy you used to solve that problem.’” Simpson encourages parents to regularly help their children work through adversity. “We need to teach our kids that just because something is hard, we don’t give up,” says Simpson. “In fact, we want to do hard things to help us grow. We call it productive struggle.”

Experience with play

Zilberman is concerned that some kids don’t play enough.

“They are so busy on their tablets, and I’m seeing that as a big issue,” she says, although she understands the pull of technology. “There is just a big difference between kids who spend a lot of time interacting with others and kids who park themselves in front of a screen,” says Zilberman. “So much of language development comes from sitting around at a table with others and interacting.”

Simpson agrees: “We don’t let our kids play anymore. We need to let them play as much as possible, because they learn so much about language and their social development.”

Simpson also likes the idea of parents talking with their kids about the concepts of kindergarten in real life, such as, “Look! I see a green tree. Green is a color,” or “Let’s count these oranges.”

Reading aloud

Both Zilberman and Simpson praise the power of reading with children. Indeed, both cited reading with children as perhaps the most important activity parents can do to help boost kindergarten readiness.

“The number one thing I would recommend to parents would be to read to your child,” says Zilberman. Simpson agrees: “If parents want one thing to do with their child, it would be to read to them, read with them on your lap, and just show them that reading is important. Reading with your kids every day develops their language and vocabulary. It also helps your relationship with your child.”

With all this talk of a child being ready for kindergarten, the good news is that most schools see readiness from another angle; schools are “ready” to receive all children.

“I hear parents say they are worried that their child is not ready for kindergarten,” Simpson says, “and I just reply, ‘Give me what you got, and I’ll teach them!’ ”

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