Help Children Make the Leap to Kindergarten and High School
Who knew that strapping on a Big Bird backpack, handing over an Elmo lunch box and waving goodbye would be one of the most difficult tasks in a parent’s life? There’s nothing quite like getting your child ready for his or her first day of school. So many questions can run through your mind. Will he make friends? Will she enjoy Â and keep up with Â this new environment? And these questions don’t end with the kindergarten transition. Going from middle school to the ninth grade proves to be another important (and sometimes stressful) time in a child’s educational career.
Still, whether their kids are starting kindergarten or taking that leap into high school, parents’ questions remain the same: Is my child ready, and what can I do to prepare him or her for the journey ahead?
Ready, Set, Kindergarten
Of all the guidelines for getting your child ready for kindergarten, the most important can be summed up in four words: Learning begins at home. Debbie Myers, a preschool teacher at Dickinson College’s Children’s Center in Carlisle, believes parents are a child’s first teachers and can build a solid foundation for future learning.
Though the process for enrolling in kindergarten differs by school and district, each school will be looking for similar things, including the child’s ability to recognize letters and their sounds. Reading is by far the best practice. “Read to your child frequently and talk about what is happening in the story. What do you think will happen next, looking at the pictures, telling who the author is, who the illustrator is,” says Myers. “It is also a good way to introduce letters and letter sounds.”
Other basics, such as math or rhyming skills, can be built off of this first step. According to Marnie Johnson, educational services coordinator at WITF, the Harrisburg area’s PBS and NPR affiliate, it’s all about making connections. “After reading the book, engage in an activity that relates to the story,” she says. “Making connections to many different disciplines helps to keep a child interested. And the more something relates to a child’s personal experiences, the more they will retain.”
enn McMurray, stay-at-home mom of two and former elementary school teacher, says “teachable moments” are everywhere. She utilizes as many as possible with her 5-year-old daughter, Katarina, who will start school in the fall. “Nowadays, ‘kindergarten readiness’ is not what it used to be for us,” says the Harrisburg resident. “Kindergarten is now focused on what we knew in first grade.” McMurray recommends making every activity educational, in a fun way. Count the number of eggs you beat into a cake batter, talk about different types of food in the grocery store or take a walk by a river and discuss different plants and animals that you pass.
While the ability to recognize letters and numbers is part of readying children for kindergarten, getting them ready socially is also a big part of the picture. Can he sit for short periods of time? Can she share and cooperate? Although no child is turned away from a classroom, even if they need work with these concepts, easing them into these situations beforehand will make the transition smooth.
“Recruit your child to help with things around the house that you may have thought were too difficult for them,” Johnson suggests. “Children gain a great deal of skill and independence from dressing themselves, setting the table for dinner or sweeping the kitchen floor. If they have siblings, encourage them to care for and play with them. If there are no siblings, finding friends in the neighborhood or in play groups is beneficial.”
Preschool may also be an option. “Preschool provides the child not only with some foundational academic skills, but the opportunity to learn many social skills that can help them adjust better in the kindergarten setting,” says Erin Black, kindergarten teacher at Kindergarten Academy in Mechanicsburg. Check into your local district to see what options they provide. For example, Kindergarten Academy’s district offers a three-week transition program for students who have not attended preschool, “as a way of leveling the ‘playing field’ for all students coming into kindergarten,” explains the Academy’s principal, Kathleen Healey. “During this transition program, the emphasis is on the social skills needed for a successful start.”
And when the day comes to put your little one on that bus or hold her hand as she makes her way into the classroom, keep the water works in check until after she’s out of sight. “Parents should put on a brave front and be confident about the upcoming kindergarten experience,” says Healey. “Children take their cues from their parents, and if they sense that the parent is anxious or nervous, they will feel the same way. I tell parents to put on their best Academy-Award performance on the first day and save any tears or worries for after their children are off to school.”
To High School and Beyond
Sure, this year’s crop of ninth graders are markedly different than they were as 5-year-olds. Texting, hanging out with friends and being “cool” are much more important than being with Mom and Dad these days, but many of the concerns teens’ parents have are similar to those facing the parents of new kindergarteners. Developing good social skills and keeping up with learning in a new environment are more important than ever, because college and careers are only a few short years away.
“Parents are concerned about students being able to handle the workload of high school, being safe in a large building, bullying, peer pressure and getting ready for college or post-secondary education,” says Sieta Achampong, ninth grade assistant principal at Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg. And they should be. While many new high schoolers don’t think they need help from their parents, Achampong says now is the time to become even more involved in your child’s education. New surroundings, expectations and academic pressures can be difficult to navigate. Talk to your teens about their future plans, such as their goals for after high school. Garrett Boop, a guidance counselor at York’s Dallastown Area High School, reminds incoming freshmen that this is the start of their permanent high-school transcript. Achieving academic excellence now is extremely important. Colleges and future employers will base many decisions on coursework and grades.
Still, balancing involvement in the student’s school life while allowing for a natural progression into independence is key. “When a child reaches high school, we try to develop a sense that they are responsible now for their successes or failures,” says Jill Robinson, director of guidance at Lancaster Catholic High School. “Parents have difficulty letting go. That's not to say that they should let go completely, but little by little, the student should begin to ‘own’ their grades, achievements and, yes, even the failures.”
For example, while in many middle schools teachers will remind students to keep up-to-date with calendars and homework assignments, high school instructors will not keep such close tabs on them. Both students and parents should also know the high-school workload is vastly different from that of middle school, requiring more study time and extra organizational skills.
Planning ahead is also imperative. Boop tells students that even taking the time to pack their backpacks correctly, so they’re not carrying around all of their books all day long, is time well spent. Visiting your child’s high school before the first day of class will give him or her a better idea where lockers, classrooms and the lunch room are located.
At Dallastown, a one-day orientation is offered for incoming ninth graders in August.
For Pequea native Lisa Aichele, encouraging her children to participate in one school activity a season was a key to a smooth high-school transition. Aichele has four children, ranging from a recent Lancaster Catholic graduate to a fourth-grader. “I think being involved is a good thing for kids. It makes the transition easier,” Aichele says. She also believes it’s helped her kids to work harder on academics, since students must keep a certain grade point average to participate.
“They end up having less time to do their homework, so it almost forces them to time-manage better,” she says.
And whether you’re 5 or 14, making reading a number-one priority should be high on your list. “This generation has developed students' skills in texting, but reading is so important,” says Robinson. Encourage your child to find a book he or she is interested in and crack it open, even over the summer holidays. “Communicating well is also important, being able to write well and open your mind to cross curricular ideas,” Robinson says. “History, English, math, science, religion, languages Â it’s all relevant and it develops ideas and abilities that will carry students into the next phase of their soon-to-be-adult lives.”
Freelance writer Noreen Livoti is a mother of one from Harrisburg.