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Child Caring

Easing the transition to kindergarten

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / May 29, 2003

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Three new elementary schools will open in Medford next September, but construction won't finish until late August. For incoming kindergarteners, this is not good news. Sure, it's nice to have new classrooms and to know that every kindergarten room will have its very own bathroom. That's not the same, though, as seeing the room with your very own eyes and knowing exactly where the bathroom is.

Young children are very concrete. They also soak up information through the senses. One piece of advice early- childhood specialists often give parents who are able to tour next year's classroom in the spring with their soon-to-be kindergartener is to make some sensory-specific notes: What's the weather on the day of your visit? Is there a particular smell to the room? What bright colors do you notice on the walls or floor? Are there any interesting noises, like from a hamster in a cage?

The idea is that when it's time to talk about kindergarten next August, you'll be able to create a story that's full of information your child can key into: "Remember the day we visited? It was pouring rain and we forgot our umbrellas and we got soaked running in from the car! But even though it was so gray outside, do you remember how cheerful the room was? Remember the bright red reading rug? And how the room smelled so delicious, from the lilacs on the teacher's desk?"

It's not just parents in Medford who won't be able to create a story this year. In Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline, as well as dozens of communities around the nation, budget shortfalls are forcing reorganization and downsizing of school systems; many schools won't complete kindergarten assignments until late summer.

"This is definitely making me more anxious," says Susan Bibbons, whose daughter, Emma, will attend kindergarten in Medford.

Not being able to meet the teacher, see the space and imagine your child in it is a disadvantage, but there are still ways to prepare.

"It's OK to call the principal and ask all your questions, even the dumb ones. All principals expect it," says Medford kindergarten teacher Sheila McCoy, currently at Forest Park School, next year at Roberts Elementary. McCoy is part of a team of principals and teachers who will meet Medford parents and children at an open house June 5.

This is good advice no matter where you live. Parents tend to be anxious about this transition. Even parents who have experienced it with an older child may be surprised to find how worked up they are, especially because they didn't expect to be. It is, after all, real school.

"The sooner you address your own anxiety, the better for you and your child," says early-childhood educator Joan Spoerl, a Head Start teacher in Chicago and a veteran kindergarten teacher. "The more anxious you are, the more anxious your child will be."

Children also come with their own baggage.

"They have rigid, stereotypical expectations of kindergarten based on what they've seen on TV, especially cartoons. Plus, they take literally the tidbits they pick up from older kids," says early-childhood educator Karen Murphy, an assistant professor at Wheelock College whose dissertation examined preschoolers' conceptions of kindergarten.

"The teachers they imagine are harsh, with hair pulled back in a bun," she says. The classrooms are stark, with big kids' desks, the work difficult. Many of them expect to learn to read the first day, some think they need to know how to read in order to attend.

When children can't see the classroom and meet the teacher to debunk these misconceptions, it's up to parents to do the job. Murphy suggests dropping information into conversation, a little now and then more, randomly, over the summer. For instance, "Did you know some kids think they have to know how to read before they go to kindergarten? It's not true." Or, "Did you know kindergarten teachers are really helpful? If you forget where the bathroom is, they'll show you."

What's happening in the preschool classroom now also can create negative images. Two big no-no's from Murphy and Spoerl: (1) Using kindergarten teachers' expectations as a threat, as in, "Kindergarten teachers won't put up with behavior like that!" (2) Staging graduation ceremonies. "The end should be a celebration to remind them of all they have learned and accomplished, so they see themselves as competent and ready for the next step," says Spoerl. "A continuation, not an ending."

Indeed, Medford kindergarten specialist Ronda Brenner tells parents and teachers to talk about what will be the same next year rather than what will be different: "Did you know there's a pretend corner, just like at preschool?"

Theodora Stratis, also of Medford, says her daughter is already expressing some anxiety about kindergarten. Since Zoe wasn't able to be specific, her mom took the bull by the horns. "I told her, `No matter how big you get, we'll always be here to take care of you,' " Stratis says.

Murphy likes that. "Part of what gets children into trouble is that the outside world sends messages about being a big boy or girl," she says. "Well, they know they are not big, they know they are not grown-up, so it creates anxiety: `Will someone still take care of me if I'm grown-up? What do I have to do to be grown-up?' They begin to put pressure on themselves."

Parents may inadvertently put pressure on them, too. While it's important to read to your child every day, just because she's starting kindergarten does not mean you should turn your reading time into grill and drill ("What letter does this word start with?" "Can you find the word `cat?' ").

"Concentrate instead on making the reading time pleasurable, so there's a warm and positive experience with books and with you," says Spoerl.

On the other hand, it's helpful to promote language learning: "Do you see anything on the dinner table that starts with the `ssss' sound?" If she doesn't, you can say, "Oooh, I see sssss-salt." Then move on and try again in another week. Because this is playful and fun, and because there's no right or wrong answer, you're building confidence, not undermining it, making learning likely to occur, Murphy says.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important ways parents can prepare a child for kindergarten is by making sure he has appropriate toys.

"Kids who play mostly with action figures or engage mostly with a screen tend to walk into a kindergarten classroom and wander around, getting into trouble," Spoerl says. Toys she recommends include manipulatives (Duplos, Legos, or pattern blocks), props for pretend play, and open-ended art materials.

Susan Bibbons is taking advantage of all the prep material Medford is providing incoming kindergarten parents. It's helping. "I know now that most of my fears are unrealistic. I still have them, though," she says. She ticks off a few: "Will she be OK on the bus? How will she know when it's her stop? At school, how will she find her classroom?"

Kindergarten specialist Brenner is sympathetic. "I often think this is harder for parents than for children," she says.

Go over what to expect
from school

1 If your school doesn't have a questionnaire for you to fill out about your child, write a one-page letter to the teacher over the summer detailing your child's likes and dislikes, quirks and strengths.

2 If you can't tour the classroom now, find out when you can visit in August. Most kindergarten teachers are setting up their room at least a week before school starts and are happy to have you visit. It's also OK to ask to observe a current kindergarten class now, but go without your child. It would be confusing for her to see a teacher or classroom that won't be hers.

3 Visit the playground over the summer.

4 Even if you can't get a class list, arrange for individual playdates with other children going into kindergarten so she's comfortable meeting new children.

5 Two ways to help your child be prepared: (1) Make sure he understands that rules exist, that they can be different from place to place, and that there are consequences for forgetting them. Talk about rules in your family. Why does he think you have them? Which rules does he think are good ones? (2) Connect the content of books to his world. Not with every book, but once in a while ask questions about what you read: What was your favorite part of the story? Do you know anyone like that person?

6 If you notice extreme changes in behavior over the summer, it's likely related to kindergarten. Look for a way to talk about it. Books are a good entry. Some recommendations: "Tom Goes to Kindergarten" by Margaret Wild and David Legge (Albert Whitman); "The School Bus" by Donald Crews (Scholastic); "It's Time for School, Stinky Face" by Lisa McCourt (Troll).

7 The idea that kindergarten starts in September has no meaning to 5-year-olds. Pin it instead to some event: "September comes after our visit to Maine."

8 Over the summer, answer any questions she has as specifically as possible, but don't over-talk it. If she has no questions, bring it up only occasionally. Start talking about kindergarten in earnest about two weeks before: "What kinds of activities do you think there will be in kindergarten?" Even if she doesn't ask, provide specific details about how she gets to school, how she gets home, snacks, lunch, bathrooms.

9 Be sure and tell your child, "I think you will be a terrific kindergartener!"

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