Sweaty palms, a fluttering tummy and a racing heart. They might not be on the supply list, but nearly every student — and parent — brings them on the first day of kindergarten.
Though it’s barely spring, fall is on the minds of many parents, and with kindergarten registrations in full swing, many families are already anxiously awaiting that leap into the school world.
When it comes to that first day, most children are either teeming with excitement or quietly timid, says Birchwood Elementary School kindergarten teacher Mikel Panagos. One of her favorite memories is of a shy little girl who kept one hand carefully folded over the other throughout her first day in class.
“When I asked if her hand was alright or if she had hurt herself, she simply smiled and explained,” Panagos says. “Her mom had kissed her hand before school so that she would have something to remind her of her mom, and she ‘didn’t want the kiss to fall off.’ ”
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In order to start kindergarten in the fall, a child must be 5 years old by Aug. 31. For children who just make the age requirement, it’s up to parents to decide if their child is ready to start kindergarten.
“If a kid’s birthday is on the line, talk to a teacher to decide if your kid is ready,” advises John Thibault, an elementary support specialist at Roosevelt Elementary. “There are some younger kids who know their letters and colors and are more social … they’re ready to go.”
Children who are not mature enough for school might not be able to sit through a whole story, transition from play to work, engage with other children, follow a series of directions or use school supplies properly. If some of these skills are present, parents can spend summer working with their child to develop them further.
“Sometimes a summer of growth can make all the difference,” Panagos says.
It can be difficult for some children to transition from relaxed playtime at home to structured learning at school. To get future students ready for classroom life, Panagos advises parents to get children into a schedule.
“Practicing routines, such as listening to a story, washing hands before lunch time and using inside voices, are all processes that can make the transition to school more successful,” Panagos says.
One of the big worries for parents is whether their child knows enough to start school.
“Many parents are surprised that kindergarten is more academic than it was when they were young,” Panagos says. “It does help if the child has an awareness of certain skills, such as basic counting, recognition and an understanding of shapes and colors.”
Often preschools can help prepare children for the kindergarten classroom, teaching social skills such as sharing, cooperating, empathizing and reasoning. Kindergarten usually pairs these skills with an academic focus on basic reading, writing, counting and sorting skills. Even without preschool, parents can set a positive example for learning by reading to their children.
“Parents can help their kids get a head start if they see their parents reading,” Thibault says. “Having books around is very useful and (so is) reading to their children. It helps children make the connection between words and ideas.”
Though getting children ready academically is crucial for kindergarten, parents should let their kids learn at a comfortable pace, says Kelly Lee, a teacher at Shooting Star Preschool whose sons Jackson and Spencer are in first grade and kindergarten, respectively. When one of her sons was having trouble with an idea, she didn’t let it upset her or him because she knew the knowledge and skills would come in time.
“I think balance in life is the key,” says Lee, 37, of Bellingham. “You have to challenge them with what they’re ready for, but keep it positive.”
Parents who aren’t sure what their kids need to know should get in touch with their kindergarten in advance to get acquainted with what the teacher expects of students coming into class. Once parents are aware of the expectations, they can find little lessons to teach their children in daily life.
“Most of the basics of preschool and kindergarten are embedded in natural discovery,” Panagos says. “Explore shapes in the grocery story; find things that are red at the park; count the ducks in the pond; draw pictures for relatives; make up stories during bath time; find letters that are in his or her name on a cereal box or sign. The main thing is to get your child excited about learning.”
PARENTS WORRY TOO
Making those first steps away from the comfort of home can be a nerve-racking ordeal for children who have spent the past five years in the care of a parent. For the parent, it can often be equally as difficult to relinquish control and allow a child to walk freely into a new classroom.
“Not only do the children experience separation anxiety, but the parents do as well,” Thibault says. “We encourage parents to perhaps bring the child in a little early and get to know the teacher.”
This can ease anxieties for both parties and let parents feel more comfortable with the new person in their child’s life. Thibault once had a parent who was so nervous she didn’t leave the class, which then made the child nervous. That child didn’t feel better until the parent finally left.
“Although it is hard for many parents, the most successful first days come when parents allow their child the independence of starting school without the parent sticking around,” Panagos says. “As hard as it may be to leave a crying 5-year-old, more often than not the crying ends as soon as mom or dad goes.”
For parents who are going through the process of putting a child in kindergarten for the first time, having a network of knowledgeable friends can be a lifesaver.
“Some of my best advice has come from other moms,” Lee says. “You know it’s normal that you’re crying because three other friends are crying, too.”
Getting to know a new school can be a good way for parents and children to ease worry. Most schools offer open houses to get accustomed to the classroom, though Lee advises against too much build up for the first day.
“Overpreparing and making it a huge ordeal is not smart,” Lee says. “It’s really important (your kids) don’t see you be anxious.”
Lee smiled as she dropped her son Jackson, now 7, off at Sunnyland Elementary School’s kindergarten. But there were tears in her eyes all the way back to her car, even though she was happy with her son’s school and excited for his first day.
“It’s totally normal to feel that tug, but doing your best not to give them that baggage is important,” Lee says.