When prepping your child for preschool and kindergarten, it's best to start with the basics.
“It’s always good to know where the bathrooms are, or when it’s lunchtime,” says Deborah Newell, program director for Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), which is funded by Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County. “It’s good to discuss the routines at school or read them a book about school. They like routines, so being consistent with them is important.”
Nervousness is common, too, she says.
“If you notice they’re anxious, frustrated or sad, these are teachable moments. You don’t want to fix everything. You want them to learn how to problem-solve."
This will help build their confidence.
"We always tell parents, if there is new behavior or challenging behavior, figure out why,” Newell says.
Talk to the teacher, know the classroom rules
Besides learning where the classroom is, parent and child should ask about the teacher’s expectations and what type of independent learning the child will need to do. For example, kindergartners should be able to sit peacefully in a group, follow two- to three-step instructions, stand in line, respect others’ property and put things away. This should be an easy adjustment for children who already have attended pre-k, Newell says.
If your child encounters difficulties, discuss it with the teacher, Newell says. You may be able to communicate with the teacher via text or email if your job makes it hard to schedule a conference.
Children, particularly the youngest, benefit from visiting the new school in advance and meeting the teacher, says Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, child psychologist in Boca Raton. “This helps the child have some view of what’s coming.”
And then there are the new rules to get used to.
When Miriam Similus, 5, had trouble following instructions in kindergarten at Village Academy in Delray Beach, her mother, Enith, scheduled a conference with the teacher. That helped Miriam improve, her mom says.
“Some kids tend to have trouble paying attention and staying in their seats in kindergarten,” Mortensen says. “It’s harder and it’s more structured. There are a lot more rules to follow, and it can be really overwhelming.”
The child may bring home a red card or a note from the teacher, Mortensen says. Other children may be anxious, shy or cry a lot. If this continues for more than a few weeks, it’s time to seek help from your child’s teacher.
“Your child may need extra support from you, too,” Mortensen says. “You can spend quality time with them, reading books, talking about feelings, coloring. It can make all the difference.”
Learning to play with others
The change from preschool to kindergarten involves learning to play with others and communicating without arguing, Newell says.
Even if your child is learning the new rules, he may have classmates who didn’t attend pre-kindergarten or don’t behave well. That’s when children can use a “peace table” or other ways to resolve conflicts, with help from their teacher.
Adjusting to cultural changes
For children who recently immigrated, going to school here is a transition itself, says Sara Selznick, senior director of programming at the Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach. So it's important to keep that in mind.
People who grew up in different cultures don’t always feel comfortable seeking help from outside the family, Newell says. “It can be a stigma, so we concentrate on whatever is working,” she says. “We are geared at making very small changes that make a huge difference, like talking about the positive things the child is doing.”
Handling the demands of school
Parents need to recognize that school is much more demanding these days. And that can be stressful for kids.
“Kindergarten used to be what pre-K is now: learning to be social, taking turns. Kindergarten is now much more academic,” Newell says.
You can expect some changes in your children’s behavior when they jump from preschool to kindergarten.
Your best strategy during this transition? Watch your children, talk to them, act quickly when they change and support their independence. Actually, these skills, with a few adjustments for age, should serve you well from pre-kindergarten until graduation, Newell says.
Be patient and persistent
Not quite sure how your child is reacting to change? That's normal.
It takes patience and persistence to pry information from a child, says Terri Mortensen, child and family program manager at the Faulk Center for Counseling in Boca Raton. Ask your child specific questions on the ride home or while preparing meals.
“You might ask, ‘Who did you sit with at lunch? Or, did anything funny happen today?’ ” she says. You also can ask about your child’s favorite activities, such as art or music, rather than just academics.
Don’t give up. If a particular subject doesn’t work, try another until you strike a chord, Mortensen says. “Just being interested in them can open them up.”
Once your child's opens up, you may not always like what you hear them saying. But try not to judge.
Family changes can cause stress, too
“They will come to you if they don’t feel they’re going to be judged or punished,” Mortensen says.
Besides the transition points in school, changes at home can stress your young child, such as moving, marital or financial problems, says Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, child psychologist in Boca Raton.
Problems with friendships also can affect behavior, Siciliano-Hartt says.
Ask your child what’s going on but also consult the teacher, parents of your child’s friends and, if it's appropriate, the friends themselves, she says.
Also take every opportunity to communicate with the teacher.Don’t wait for a crisis. Text or e-mail the teacher to ask what your child is doing well and build on that, Newell says.
Another way to get a feel for how your child is doing is by looking at the pictures your child may be drawing. Art helps your child expresses anger, fear or frustration, Siciliano-Hartt says. When stressed, children are more likely to act differently rather than talk about it, she says. Attentive parents will notice changes in behavior, ask questions and take action.
Take every opportunity to listen to your child. Eat together and talk during breakfast, dinner and even snacks before afterschool activities. “You might not be talking directly about issues you or they are worrying about, but if something is going on, you’ll know,” Newell says.
An important talk doesn’t necessarily need a lot of time.
“If your child needs you, give them two or three minutes now,” Newell says. “If you constantly tell them, ‘Later, not right now,’ that’s when they develop patterns of interrupting, or they start acting up to get your attention.
"I wish I had known that when I was raising kids.”
• Deborah Newell, Triple-P program director, Community Partners
• Terri Mortensen, child and family program manager, Faulk Center for Counseling
• Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, child psychologist in Boca Raton
• Sarah Selznick, senior director of programming, Achievement Centers for Children and Families