With more expected of our little ones in the classroom, it seems preschool is the new kindergarten.
“There has been a shift over the past 20 years. The kindergarten I attended is not the kindergarten of today,” says Jennifer Farmer, executive school director at The Gardner School of Oak Brook. It’s a positive change, she says, one that will keep early education in the U.S. in line with the rest of the world.
Here’s what parents need to know about making sure kids have the best possible start to their school careers.
In the classroom
Preschool should be intentional, says Farmer. “Much of our day is focused on objectives and everything is very purposeful. The children are still having fun, but they are also doing special activities to build their skills.”
Leslie Morrison, program coordinator of Summer Leapfrog at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, agrees. There should be a mix of structure with time and opportunity for students to explore, she says. Both help students achieve learning objectives.
Kids need to be encouraged to dig deeper and that even at 4, “it’s incredible to see how deep their learning can be,” she says.
That doesn’t mean, however, that little ones should have lots of worksheet time or be drilled on facts.
Farmer says it’s about giving kids activities that they have to think about and that may push them a little bit. If it turns out to be something they cannot handle on their own, they still learn the valuable skills that come with knowing where to go for assistance and asking for help.
That said, preschool and kindergartenstudents are not always at the same developmental level.
That’s OK, according to Jackie Johnson, kindergarten teacher at Grace Lutheran School in River Forest.
“Parents worry about how their child measures up compared to others in the class, and if they should be reading sooner. That’s a concern they should let go of,” she says. “Usually by the year end, all students have begun to learn the decoding skills needed to become fluent readers.”
What parents do at home can have a big impact on their little one’s school success.
Children pick up on their parents’ feelings, so it can make a big difference when you are excited and positive towards their school and education.
“Having a positive attitude helps children adjust to social and academic elements that they will encounter throughout their educational careers,” Johnson says.
Healthy habits are also crucial for children’s success.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for students to get enough sleep and have a balanced breakfast every day,” says Johnson. “When students come to school without enough sleep, their developing bodies and brains cannot process, and it puts unnecessary stress on them that they do not understand. This causes tantrums and melt downs. When students don’t have a proper diet, they often burn out early in the day and don’t have the energy to maintain daily routines.”
Yoko Avramov, director of Montessori Language Academy in Forest Park, says parents can also help by working on social skills.
That can be done with family and by meeting peers in play groups or even at the park. Even playing a game of catch has numerous benefits, both physical and social, because it illustrates how the back and forth of conversation works. Playing catch is also a model for sharing—each person gets a turn to throw, Avramov says.
Asking kids what they think and why also helps build their ability to think deeper. Doing so helps kids make connections and create stories on their own, which Morrison says are hugely powerful, especially at the preschool and kindergarten ages.
The teachers all said that encouraging reading at home is an important way for parents to get kids ready for school.
Avramov suggests sticking with actual books rather than tablets or e-readers and says that parents shouldn’t rush reading. While it is an opportunity to work on letter recognition and sight words, reading with your child simply for pleasure is important and can instill a love of books that lasts a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the issue of Chicago Parent’s Making the Grade. Read the rest of the issue.