The start of a new school year can be especially daunting for children who are starting kindergarten or high school. UBC school and child psychologist Laurie Ford has some tips for caregivers on setting children up for success during these times of transition.
What are signs that a child is—or isn’t—ready for kindergarten?
That’s a complex question. Parents and families need to realize that it’s normal to have variations in development at the preschool and kindergarten age. Historically, people have looked at academic signs of readiness like letters and numbers, but more and more research is looking at the social, emotional and behavioural components.
As a parent, ask yourself: Has your child had prior schooling experiences such as preschool, childcare or daycare? In general, most kids make the transition pretty easily, but if it’s a little rocky in the beginning, build in some flexibility. Maybe they just can’t take on a full day of kindergarten initially but could phase into it over a few weeks.
They need to be able to sit a little bit, but not a lot. You need them to be able to regulate their emotions a little bit, but if they don’t, learning to sit and listen or be more in control when upset is part of what kindergarten’s about. The job of kindergarten is to help get them ready for school.
When might a child be held back a year?
I don’t think there’s often a reason to hold a child back. Development has so many different components to it. It’s thinking, language, motor skills, emotions and behaviours, and they’re not all going to magically coincide at age 5.
A child may not be as far along in all areas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not ready to go to school. What it means is that you need to be prepared to support them in some areas. Know your child. If you’ve gotten feedback from other parents and playgroups about areas they need to work on, make sure that the kindergarten teachers know. The more a teacher can learn about your child, the better.
I believe you have to trust the system. Research shows there are many more benefits to getting kids into learning environments early than keeping them out of school.
What can parents do to help children ease into kindergarten?
In some families, the child’s been going to a preschool program for two or three years and it’s not going to be too big of a deal. There are other kids who have literally been at home with their mom or their dad, and this is the first time that they’re spending real lengths of time apart. Those children and parents may need to do more prep.
Try to visit the school before the end of the school year. Over the summer, go to the school. Do things on the playground. Practice the walk to school. Do those kinds of things so they start to feel like that’s also part of their world.
It’s also important to acknowledge that it’s hard for you as a parent. Even if we are regulating our emotions as adults, we can get scared and weepy about it. You’ve got to find ways to keep that in check because kids pick up on that.
Try to keep your talk around the school as positive as possible. As opposed to: “Are you worried? Are you scared about going to school?” say things such as, “How lucky, you get to go to kindergarten next year!”
What are common anxieties when kids transition to high school?
The concerns are basically the same when kids are transitioning from elementary to secondary, but it’s on a different level. They’re starting to be more aware of their peers and peer pressure. The five year old often is not too concerned that he’s crying his eyes out in front of everybody, but when you’re 13 and 14 and you’re having trouble, it’s not cool to acknowledge that kind of stuff.
Parents should recognize that many of the adolescents aren’t going to admit that they’re worried. But be sensitive to that. The more you can do to demystify the space to them the better. Get them to visit the school and understand their schedule and the school’s expectations.