Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kindergarten Readiness

I was reading Ayn’s post over at Little Illuminations about kindergarten readiness and I found myself inspired to write a comment that was as long as her original post so I moved back here to write about kindergarten readiness, which I know is on a lot of parent’s minds about now.

Ayn writes about her focus on self-help skills like putting on jackets, zipping up, and putting on shoes, as well as knowing vital information like their own last names, their parent’s first names, their addresses and phone numbers. I don’t currently teach most of these things, at least not consciously, although I did teach these skills as a parent. She’s inspired me to both make sure my kids know these things, but also to think about what kindergarten readiness skills I am trying to teach.

The ability to function effectively in a group
Most of my kids are heading off to Seattle Public School kindergartens, which means that they'll potentially be in classes of 20 or more, with a teacher and an assistant of some kind. If Woodland Park kids are going to thrive, it will help to have a little experience with navigating a class of that size. That’s one of the reasons I like larger classes in the context of a cooperative preschool. My ideal class sizes are 24 for the 3-5’s and 20 for the Pre-3’s. (This might sound outrageously large, and it would be in a traditional preschool, but because of our cooperative model we maintain a 3:1 child to adult ratio in our 3-5, class and a 2:1 ratio in our Pre-3 class, whatever our class size.)

Children who can focus on a single activity, even one in which they might not at first be interested or with which they struggle, for 20-30 minute stretches will be ready for the kind of curriculum that naturally emerges from the 10+:1 child-adult ratios found in kindergarten. As a teacher, when you alone are responsible for so many kids, you need them to have the capacity to engage in activities – even “challenging” ones – without a ton of adult guidance or persuasion.

We begin teaching this skill with circle time and our small group activities when the children are in the Pre-3 class, stretching them out as they get older. We extend these concepts even more in our Pre-K class  by gently compelling each child to at least peripherally engage in each of our “station” (art, math, puzzles, journals) activities each session. Even when a child steadfastly refuses to participate in an activity, they are at least forced to argue against it, which is a form of engagement. Ultimately, they always have the choice to quietly read a book. Each year 2-3 kids give this option a try, but it rarely sticks for a full 20-30 minutes. Most of the kids gamely try everything, even if they struggle or it doesn’t engage them on a passionate level.

Public speaking
I like my Pre-K kids to be confident in front of an audience. I make sure each of them has a turn in front of the class at least once a week during their 4-5-year old year. Public speaking is like a muscle: exercise it, or it will whither. It doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience. Raising hands is the entry level version of public speaking, but during their Pre-K year they find themselves in front of the room during their weekly “sharing time” (show and tell) as well as during “journals” (I read their journal entries to the class). By the time they “graduate” they will have had 3 opportunities to sit in the “birthday throne” to talk about their lives, and an unlimited number of opportunities to present their stories from the front of the room.

American’s consistently report “public speaking” as among their greatest fears, often ahead of “death.” Given how important that skill is, and how pervasive the fear, it only makes sense to work on it at a young age.

Identifying and engaging the basic concept of fairness is an important social skill that we actively teach at Woodland Park. Children who expect to be treated fairly and who seek to treat others fairly, will not only tend to attract more friends and grow up to be better citizens, but they will also be better equipped for standing up to bullying.

Question authority
I want our kids to have a strong sense of what they know and to have the confidence to question adults when they are being told things that don’t fit their reality. The children at Woodland Park learn early that Teacher Tom often says things that are flat out wrong and it’s their job to set him right. When I say that I want them to question authority I don’t mean it in a defiant sense, but rather in the sense of our best educational traditions.

“Academic” skills
I’ve spoken to a number of kindergarten teachers, from both public and private schools over the years about what they’re looking for as far as “academic” skills. They are not expecting the children to be reading, nor are then expecting them to be familiar with mathematical algorithms. It’s enough that they know the alphabet, can write their own names, count to 10, and be able to cut on a line with scissors. I’ve never gone out of my way to teach any of those skills, but we’ve never sent a child off to kindergarten who hadn’t mastered them.

I suppose there’s a much longer list, but these are the highlights. Like Ayn, I’d be curious to learn what other readiness skills you’ve found important.

Ideally, however, as my educational ally Deborah Stewart points out:

 . . . it is the job of our schools to get ready for their incoming kindergarteners, not the kids’ job to get ready for kindergarten. This is because kids come in such a wide range of skills and developmental needs.

But even still, we want to help children be prepared to be successful as they move ahead in school. The most important thing that I think Pre-K teachers can do is keep school fun and help their students love to learn. Encourage their curiosity, interest to discover and explore, and creativity. We want them to love learning and have a desire to learn more.

Ultimately, that's the kind of kid who will thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

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Scott said...

Tom, you are so right. The skills you mention are so important for kids moving into kindergarten. Learning to explore; ask questions; test ideas; work together in a group; express your ideas to others; try and fail and try again; learn to do things even if you don't want to - all of these will benefit a new kindergartner as much or more than the "academic" skills. (And, as you pointed out, they learn the basics of those anyway.) Thanks for a great post.

Floor Pie said...

This is a great list. I'd like to add a note of reassurance for my fellow parents who are getting ready to send their first kids to kindergarten in the fall: It IS GOING TO BE OKAY! Really!

First of all, you need to keep in mind that kindergarten is half a year away right now. Your child will be doing a lot of growing and changing between now and then. Don't worry if it seems like they're not ready to start kindergarten today.

Kindergarten is a huge adjustment, for sure. Those early weeks are tough for the kids and, in a lot of ways, even tougher for the parents. One thing I noticed during the first weeks of my son's kindergarten was the shell-shocked look on every kid's face -- regardless of their preschool background, regardless of their "academic" skills. It's new, it's big, it's intimidating.

But the kindergarten teachers know this, and they come to work prepared to help us all transition as easily as possible. That's what kindergarten is for. They practice social skills and taking care of themselves. They take tours of the school to learn their way around. They practice letters, numbers, handwriting. No one is expected to have it down perfectly when they walk in the door. They practice being part of a group, and identifying with each other as a whole. "We all belong," it says on the door of my son's class.

Again: It's going to be okay!

jlo said...

It is amazing to see, at a school like mine, that kids come in and don't know how to hold/open a book, have never heard a nursery rhyme, and don't know their last names. There is definitely more to K than reading and math! As always, you are giving a great start to your kiddos.

Anonymous said...

Another wonderful post.

Do you have any opinions on the Tribes philosophy?

Eternal Lizdom said...

Lovely post!! I've not been concerned about Teagan and her readiness- my gut tells me she's ready based on what I see and how I've seen her grow and watching her brain just open up to the world around her. But I love your list and I take comfort in knowing that my daughter is doing well in these areas.

Deborah Stewart said...

Hi Tom,
Earlier today, our facebook group was having a discussion on worksheets and age appropriate activities and somehow this led into a discussion on what happens in Kindergarten. I wasn't able to continue participating in the conversation because my husband was insisting I go get grocieries:) So at the last minute, I saw you had posted a timely post about Kindergarten readiness - I was like "cool, I will just toss this up and come back later to read it!" So that is what I did - no concern because I have learned I can trust your ideas and you never prove me wrong. So now I just read it to find you quoted my comment to Ayn:) I had to laugh at myself - now I'll bet these teachers think I was trying to pull a fast one:) Thank you for posting this timely information - it is huge question on so many minds and now I can just refer everyone to you:) Gets me off the hook!

Teacher Tom said...

@Whacked . . . I don't know about Tribes philosophy. Tell me more!

Unknown said...

I agree with all the skills you mentioned. I focused my post mainly on self-help type skills, but the hingst you mentioned are of UTMOST importance!That is a big part of our job. The academic stuff "comes" when children are well prepared. I also love that you included public speaking. We do a lot of Reader's Theater type activities. When I introduce a finger play, the first few times we do it on our fingers, but then I have students come act our the parts!

pamela Wallberg said...

I love what Tools of the Mind considers to be curriculum for "kindergarten readiness".

This whole readiness issue needs to be looked at - not just by educators but by parents, too.

Unknown said...

@pamela . . . agreed!

Unknown said...

Fairness! I love that! Questioning authority is vital. I have to admit, that before becoming a reader of yours, I might not have felt as strongly about that as I do now. Now I think it is the best thing we can do for our child : ).

I am thankful for ways you help me grow!