How should we prepare kids for kindergarten?
Concerned that so many kids are “unprepared,” for kindergarten the Education Coalition of Decatur has come up with a checklist of skills: (1) academic (e.g. write name, recognize letters, sounds, colors and shapes), (2) physical (run, skip, jump, etc.), (3) the “social/emotional” (respect other people’s rights, feelings and property; use words to deal with anger—I know some adults who are still working on this one), (4) language skills.
My fear is that it will have the same negative impact on our children’s education as so many other lists of “standards.” There is nothing wrong with the list; just as there is nothing wrong with listing the multiplication tables as a third grade thing and the written word as a first grade thing. However, in the absence of an understanding of how humans really learn, it is predictable that it will become a social sorting device just as other lists of standards have. Failure to measure up to a standard by age five means nothing; for a school to make it seem important is unnecessary and potentially destructive.
“Then what should we tell parents?” I was asked. Here’s my answer: Tell parents to:
- See children as sufficient to the challenges they face, even though they are rarely quite ready.
- Treat them as if they are responsible, strong, empathetic, smart, socially responsible, and resilient. If you don’t, they will prove you right. When we underestimate kids, we undermine their confidence by letting them risk too little, rescuing them too often, and gushing over them too much.
- See them as experimenters. Notice how they observe and map onto their brain every detail of their environment—especially their social environment. Notice the research projects they initiate on “how things work around here,” and “how I fit in.”
- Respect them for the complex organisms they are—whole people who by the age of 18 months know what others want and want to get it for them. By the time they walk in the door of a kindergarten they have been scientists, thinkers, learners, collaborators, communicators and creators for over 43,000 hours.
- Assume they want real work to do in the family: everything from holding the door for mom when her arms are full of groceries to cleaning out the refrigerator, baking cupcakes and raking the back yard. Give them opportunities to make a difference as early as possible—which is earlier than you think—at least by 18 months. Contrary to popular opinion, they like to work—real, meaningful work.
- Create an environment that maximizes three things: (1) internally motivated (2) decision making in the context of (3) high quality (accurate) feedback. They are counting on you to be an authority on what’s true—whether it is good, bad, ugly or painful,
- Focus on sending them off into the world with a strong pre-frontal cortex, and a lot of practice in harmonizing their needs, values and interests with those of others.
- Support them to face and tackle challenges. (Failing is harder on adults than kids.) If you want to teach something, teach the skills of turning a potential enemy into a friend. (We’d all better get better at that.)
- Pay attention to what your behavior teaches them. For instance, when you make a mistake, do you laugh and apologize or are you defensive? Do you get mad? or ask questions and listen? Do you obviously try to understand them?
- Engage with them, when it feels right.
- Shake things up a bit. Introduce something new and surprising.
- Also, read to them;
- use a lot of words;
- have dinner together;
- go on walks in the neighborhood and hikes in the park;
- explore their environment with them, and
- also let them do it on their own.
- Make it easy for them to get together with friends.
- Point stuff out even if they say “Oh, Mom.”
- It’s okay to leave them alone for hours—their brains never stop growing.
If you must have the list, then just stick it on the refrigerator and let the child chose what to do with it—in his own time. Everything on the list will be mastered—not necessarily by age five.
And that’s okay because good kindergarten teachers knows how to handle a diversity of skills. Let’s give them confident, thoughtful people to work with.
(PS. Lists? The list I just created DOES represent the crucial educational objectives. In case you didn’t notice, most of them take a lifetime.)
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