I have no doubt that my mother is answering a specific calling and has been gifted accordingly. I will try not to gush too much because she will be mortified if I do, but let’s just say… Mrs. Reese has a reputation. She’s in her twenty-first year of teaching kindergarten, with a few more in third and first-grade. Until her campus got an Instructional Coordinator two years ago, she was the GT (Gifted & Talented) coordinator campus-wide. She’s won awards for being amazing and all that jazz. Bottom line: SHE KNOWS HER STUFF.
In terms of the academic pressures parents of preschoolers feel, my mom has reassured me many times and put my anxieties to rest. I felt it selfish not to offer you that same peace.
So friends, these are Mrs. Reese’s thoughts on prepping for kindergarten at home:
1. When people ask you what they need to do to get their child ready for kindergarten, what do you tell them?
- Read! Read! Read! Make it fun. Go to the library; go to story time; make it a part of your daily routine. Ask a few questions as you read that are higher level: not just “What color is her dress?” but open-ended questions like, “What would happen if…” Oral storytelling is important too. Tell them stories about your life when you were little, stories about their grandparents, make up silly stories, etc.
- Put your phones away. Talk to them. Have conversations. Spend time together. It doesn’t have to cost money or be thrilling. Play games together and take walks. Instead of handing them your phone to distract them in the grocery store, discuss what you’re buying and why, compare the cereals, fruit, meat, ask their opinion, describe everything. Instead of turning on a movie every time they climb into the car, talk about all the things they see outside. Language is so important.
- Stress behavior. What would Jesus want you to do? What does it mean to be kind—how does it look? How does it sound? How does it feel, to you and to the other person? Children who know how to treat others are miles ahead of the class!
- Model thankfulness. For everything– when things are good and bad. Ungratefulness is innate in children. They have to be taught contentment and gratitude, things like saying “thank-you” when they get one cookie, instead of complaining about not getting two. Explain to them how that makes you feel.
- Practice teamwork. Make sure your children help around the house. Give them jobs and responsibilities. Emphasize the idea of being a “team.” Let them do things for themselves and praise them when they are independent. Doing everything for them is not doing them any favors.
- Create structure in your day. Kindergarten will be a much easier transition if they are accustomed to routines and schedules. Have a set bedtime and rest time. Children appreciate clear expectations, followed closely by clear consequences.
2. Other than being “smart,” what characteristics are most helpful for a child’s success in the classroom?
Ability to get along with other children—to share and be kind. They’re five and very egocentric. They truly believe the whole world revolves around them. But parents need to constantly teach and reinforce that we care about others; we think about how others are feeling; we have empathy for others. That’s a word we discuss constantly in the classroom. How would that have made you feel? That is how you made him feel. Try to help them understand that actions can be hurtful, that words can be hurtful.
Children learn by watching — so if parents create a narcissistic environment in their home, kids will follow suit. If they see that their parents care about others and treat others with respect and compassion, they will too.
3. What about the characteristics that are the most challenging?
I’m fine with children who don’t know their letters. I’m fine with children who can’t count. I’m even okay with children who can’t sit still. What is so hard is children who will not obey and don’t think they have to obey, children who have no concept of authority. It’s obvious that they run their homes. I have had parents tell me, “We don’t know what to do. He just won’t do what we say.” If that continues, you are not helping your child in any way. You are setting your child up for struggle.
4. What advice do you give your parents that are struggling with discipline at home?
I tell them about a conversation I had with a wise mentor when I was a young mom. He told me, “You have until about five or six-years-old to teach behavior. After that, it is an uphill battle.” And he was right. After those ages, it gets really hard to undo bad habits and disrespectful attitudes.
Children need to know from the very beginning who is in charge, who is the boss. They need to know the precise unacceptable behaviors and KNOW that if they do those things, there will be consequences (not threats). Every. Single. Time.
Don’t be afraid to start over!! If you find that you haven’t done that well, it’s okay to sit him/her down and say, “Listen. Mommy and Daddy have not done a great job of making clear what kinds of behaviors we expect from you and what is unacceptable. We are sorry. But we are going to be making some changes and from now on… ” and establish some family rules and definite consequences for breaking those rules.
Kids appreciate structure, boundaries, clear expectations. They feel safe and secure when they know someone else is in charge. Chaos is not only hard for the parent, it’s detrimental to the child.
Practice what you preach. Are you telling them it’s important to read, but then watching TV all day or playing on the computer? Are you encouraging them to be kind, but then you are unkind to others in front of them? They will pick up more on what you DO than what you SAY. If you want them to have integrity, you must have it first.
Lastly, ask for help. If you have done everything you know to do, go to someone else. Seek out a wise friend, a counselor, a doctor, someone that can give you some guidance so that you can fix this now, rather than in the teen years when the consequences are much weightier.
5. Have you seen students benefit from an atmosphere at home that emphasized play rather than instruction?
A couple of years ago I had the daughter of an Early-Childhood Education professor at the local university (and was a bit intimidated). When we did our beginning of the year assessment, I was shocked to find that she didn’t know all her letters. She probably didn’t know half of them. I was so proud of her mother. When I asked her about it, she explained, “She just wasn’t interested. She wanted to play, and I knew that was what her little brain needed anyway, so I never pushed it.” By the end of the year, she was reading at a 2nd grade level and tested as “Gifted and Talented.” AND she was well-liked because she had developed valuable social skills while playing — like sharing and being kind. She didn’t need to be working on phonics as a 4-year-old. When it clicks, it clicks. And it will click. You don’t have to push it. Before they are 6, let them be 5. Before they are 5, let them be 4.
6. When looking back at students that later flourished, can you identify common themes among them?
One thing Jim [her husband, my dad] and I identified was the ability to stick with hard tasks: perseverance and GRIT. We’ve both read a couple of books emphasizing that our current testing systems are failing us because they only measure one thing – academic intelligence, which is a very narrow lens and does not accurately measure potential. We don’t take into account integrity and character, which are just as, if not more so, crucial to success than IQ.
I’ve seen that when learning comes naturally to a student, they get accustomed to it being easy, so when they are faced with difficulty, the willingness to keep trying and push through frustration is more indicative of long-term success to me than if they can get stuff on their first try. Eventually they will be faced with hard stuff. How will they respond? Kids that keep trying and don’t give up surpass everybody!
I hope this puts some minds at ease, specifically if you feel like your child is trailing academically at three-years-old. He is learning. She is learning. They are just doing it in their own way, not ours.
When it comes to the anxieties of motherhood, my mother is my Xanax. I pick her brain all the time and am so glad I could share her with you.