It is that time of year when school districts and parents begin to think about entering kindergarten in the fall. Most schools have a pre-kindergarten screening program to get a basic information about the incoming students. My goal as a school psychologist is to give parents feedback about their child, any possible areas of weakness for the child’s age, and suggestions about how to develop those areas.
The areas that I consider most important for children entering school are vocabulary development, verbal reasoning skills, language concepts and fine motor skills. I am not terribly concerned about a child’s ability to name letters and numbers, because that will come along developmentally for most children as they enter school.
There is considerable research to indicate that vocabulary is one of the most important areas for all children as they move through school. If a child doesn’t know the meaning of a word, that child cannot understand material presented in school and is going to have a great deal of difficulty with reading comprehension. Don’t be fooled by the child using words in their conversation and assume the child understands that word. Often the child is mimicking adult speech appropriately without understanding exactly what the word/words mean. Think of a parrot, parroting your phrases. This is an important precursor of understanding but is not the same as mastery of a word or words.
What to Do:
- It is extremely important to talk about words and what they mean
- Label the pictures you see as you read picture books to your child. Point to the clock in the book and ask “what is this?” Every page is an opportunity for vocabulary development!
- Point to items in your house or on your errands for the child to name. Ask “what is this called?” Just a few of the many things you can ask your child to name: the dog, parts of a face or body, the trees, automobiles, houses, monsters, clothing, toys, objects on a desk, musical instruments, construction vehicles, flowers, banks, libraries, foods, games, dolls, and furniture. If an item has more than one name, offer it. If you know the most specific name (“excavator” instead of “construction truck” or “dahlia” instead of “flower”) go ahead and offer it! If your child can’t remember the specific name, remind them of the general name. This concept of more specific names within a category will come up again later in other verbal practice.
- When you use a word in conversation with the child, ask the child “what does that word mean?” This is a good way to practice more abstract words like feelings, proper nouns (as specific place names, people names, words for religion may not always show up in picture books or as tangible objects around your house). More later on naming emotions in conjunction with social-emotional development and practice.
Verbal reasoning allows your child to make use of the words they are learning to understand, name, and define by taking the next step and thinking with words. Anyone who has ever dreamt in a foreign language (or not!) knows how important words and verbal reasoning is to thinking. Some tasks (math problems, solving a mechanical problem, packing a trunk, observing the shortest route to a given destination) use NON verbal reasoning to achieve results. To understand verbal reasoning, just think of any task which relies on language to complete. Now imagine having inadequate verbal reasoning. Without good verbal reasoning, a child will struggle with any task which requires him to “think in words.”
One way to determine whether your child has verbal reasoning concepts is to present simple analogies: A baby is small, a mommy is _____. A ball is round, a block is ______. Just as vocabulary is the basis of verbal reasoning, verbal reasoning is the basis of several essential language concepts. You can make up analogies in your everyday life and make them fun.
What to Do:
- Make up analogies (or use existing ones, see Analogy Practice, for help) to practice with your child
- Ask your child questions constantly. They likely ask you constant questions, and turnabout is fair play. More importantly, practice using words the way adults do begins to create a conceptual reality for them that cannot be gained without constant reality testing. Kids need to make sense of the world using their words and ideas. They learn as much through what they get wrong as what they get right.
- Answer your child’s questions as thoroughly as you can. Yes, I know it is crazy-making. Know that it helps!
- Talk about your day while you eat dinner. Take turns saying your “peaks and valleys” (the high points and low points of your day).
- Ask their opinion about things in your environments: colors, situations, behaviors (“what do you think of how the cat handled the run in with the dog?”), the books you are reading, the tv shows you are watching, the weather, and anything else you can think of to ask them!
- Make up stories together. Ask “what happened next” and “why did the he (the character in your child’s story) do that?”
- When your child draws ask to know what they are drawing and what is happening in the scene.
Children need to understand basic language concepts: larger, longer, tallest, beside, under, between, and so on. These language concepts are the superlatives and prepositions which we take for granted. Anyone who has laughed at the malapropisms of a toddler can tell you, children are not born understanding these relationship concepts! Your child will need to understand these concepts in order to be able to follow directions and understand content in the classroom and in subjects such as math and science.
What to Do:
- Use the squirrel to help you teach prepositions. A preposition is any word that can be used to describe a squirrel’s relationship to the tree. Examples: in, around, through, above, below, under, near, on, beside, between (ok that is for 2 trees!), and over. You can use an actual stuffed animal and practice putting it in various locations to help your child learn prepositions.
- Short of dragging out your high school year book and embarrassing yourself with the superlatives listed for your senior class, there are a number of ways to teach your child superlatives. Superlatives help indicate the degree to which something is : great, big, loud, furry, blue, cold, fast, or small. Try finding three small objects of different sizes. Show your child the largest of the three. Say “small.” Hold up the next largest and say “smaller.” Finally hold up the smallest and say “smallest.” This one is obvious, but you can get as creative as you like, enlisting the help of your child to create sets of “big, bigger, biggest” and “cold, colder, coldest” and “loud, louder, loudest.”
- Teach other relationship words: mother, father, uncle, brother, cousin, sister, grandma, aunt, and so on. Use photos of relatives to help you illustrate.
- Classify things in your environment into categories whenever you can. Examples of categories you can use easily with young children: colors (“blue, red, and yellow are all what?”), animals (“is a hippo an animal?”), toys (“find me 5 things in this room that are toys”) musical instruments (“what do a piano, a guitar, a drum, and a trumpet all have in common?”). Substitute words and categories that your child is already familiar with. Don’t try to teach vocabulary and categories at the same time, choose one unknown at a time to tackle.
Fine Motor Skills:
It is also important that your child work on his fine motor skills. While we are moving toward more and more technology to replace handwriting, there will be numerous expectations for a child, especially children in the primary grades, to be able to use a pencil and write in a recognizable way. Many children are not getting enough experience with coloring and other fine motor tasks prior to entering kindergarten which can set them back when asked to complete the normal kindergarten curriculum. This is easy and fun to fix! You will be able to find most of what you need right on Pinterest boards that offer free coloring sheets, mazes, and connect the dot activities. Search for “free printables” or follow the included links.
What to Do:
- Give your child ample opportunity to color and practice coloring within the lines. Now some of you may bristle at the idea of encouraging a child to stay within the lines but I assure you that this need not cross over into the philosophical realm. I too, believe that children should be uninhibited in their creativity! That being said, a child with stronger fine motor skills will have a bigger arsenal to draw from in actualizing his vision.
- Provide dot to dot activities, mazes, and activity books to develop fine motor skills.
These are just a few ideas to help you prepare. I hope I have been helpful in providing some more in depth information about how to help your child get ready for kindergarten. It definitely is not just a matter of knowing ABCs and 123s. Make sure they are eating nutritious foods, sleeping well, avoiding screen time as much as possible, reading daily, coloring with crayons, connecting the dots, talking about their day, asking you questions, and actively engaging with their world. Best of luck in school, kids!