Friday, November 30, 2012

A Kindergarten Readiness Check List

A couple nights ago, our parent education topic was "kindergarten readiness." Although there are some schools, sadly, that expect 5-year-olds to already possess certain literacy and math skills, most are more concerned with self-help skills like zipping up jackets, putting on shoes, and using the toilet, 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. I'm inspired to put a little more emphasis on those things, but have also found myself thinking 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 20 plus. This might sound outrageously large, and it would be in a traditional preschool, but because of our cooperative model we maintain child:adult ratios of between 4:1 and 2:1 depending on age, 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 practicing this skill with circle time, stretching the kids out as they get older. For our Pre-3 class, this might mean 20-25 minutes by the end of the year. As I wrote a few days ago, our 5's class has already demonstrated an ability to stay focused, as a group, for up to 45 minutes!

Public speaking
I like Woodland Park kids to be confident in front of an audience, and its a skill we concentrate on with the 4 and 5 year olds, making sure each of them has a turn in front of the class at least once a week. 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 and 5's years 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 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.

There’s a much longer "list" of things I hope to teach children, but these are sort of the nuts and bolts essentials, I think. A child well-grounded in these is prepared for kindergarten. Ideally, however, as my educational ally Deborah Stewart at Teach Preschool 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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Sarah at Easyread said...

This is so helpful! Thanks for sharing it.

Unknown said...

I love this post, Tom (and just shared on Facebook). SO many parents get so caught up in the worry that their 5 year old isn't reading or spelling but they miss looking out for these very simple skills. This is also a great list to have on hand when parents are looking at preschools...does the school emphasize these skills, or are they more concerned about "academics"? Thanks for laying it all out so clearly!
- Gina

Becky said...

Thanks for writing from this perspective. It's overwhelming reading other blog lists advising "Kindergarten Readiness" which list 70+ specific things that 4 or 5 year olds should know. I come from the perspective that students have plenty of time to learn these little motor/academic skills (like in kindergarten!) I struggled in school until, basically, I was a teenager then everything seemed to "click". Unfortunately I've seen too many classmates who succeed in the younger grades, lost interest in high school and lost opportunities at the college level. So let's slow down and realize education is a journey, not a race.

E. in San Francisco said...

Thank you so much, Tom!

I really needed the reassurance right now, actually. You see, I'm an aide at a private preschool and at our school's last staff meeting we all shared that we were feeling the pressure from parents to force more "academics" in favor of play based learning, which is the philosophy of the school.

I'm a young teacher, and I don't understand why parents would sign up for a play-based school and then ask why their 4 year old can't read yet. and I feel that my school's wonderful child-lead approach is going to be swayed by the wants of these very vocal parents, because as a private school, we depend on their tuition to run fluidly.

Any input or resources I should look into? I want to provide the parents with more information, and let them know that it is okay for their child to play! But I just feel so overwhelmed. I don't know where to go for this info.

Thank you in advance.

Kerry said...

Well said! I agree completely.

Teacher Tom said...

I'm sorry E. in SF . . . It can get exhausting to have to constantly "defend" a play-based curriculum, especially when all the research supports this approach. There is no research supporting the academic approach -- none. Learning academic skills early has absolutely no bearing on future success in school or life.

Your school has a play-based philosophy. If it were my school I would develop a 1-3 page "defense" of play-based learning, along with links to the research that goes all the way back to the earliest researchers like Piaget. If parents still don't buy it, then you have to be prepared to let them take their business elsewhere. I have told several parents, "I think you'll be happier in a different school." I bite my tongue before adding, "but your child won't."

Unknown said...

I love developmental checklists. I once worked at a centre that evaluated the childrens' development based on a check list that had been adopted from "somewhere". It turns out that it was originally developed in the 60's for a very specific study focussed on 5 year olds from low income families, who were latch key children in the Chicago projects. A number of generations of children had been "graded" against it. I've always thought that these developmental and readiness lists rarely touch on the skills and knowledge that make a self confident self accepting child/adult.

C. Wilder said...

Here in Long Beach, as in most places in CA, it is 30 kids with 1 teacher, no assistance. I teach at a public elementary school, but couldn't accept the change in the ratio from the 8:1 at my son's Reggio-based preschool.

A CA Kinder Teacher said...

i am a K teacher in CA. I agree with all of the skills you listed. If a child comes to my class ready to learn, I can teach them. They will read and write by the time they go to first grade. Please continue to give them lots of time to play and explore. Please continue to help them develop fine motor skills and large motor skills. Sing lots of songs, do lots of finger plays, get messy and have fun! School should be a joy.

Floor Pie said...

Play-based preschool is EXCELLENT preparation for kindergarten! Parents need to have a little more faith in kindergarten teachers. Believe it or not, they actually do know how to teach children how to read and count. It will happen, and it will happen a lot easier if the students come to them with the social skills and executive functioning that play-based learning provides.

Betsy said...

May I share this with my parents? I will happily credit you and provide them with a link to your website.

Teacher Tom said...

Of course, Betsy! Thanks for reading!

Jennifer said...

These are great tips! I am going to save these a revert back to them from time to time! Thanks so much for sharing!

Unknown said...

Hi, What a great read! I am so pleased to see that ''questioning'' adults is part of the skills you wish to help develop. I will use these tips when speaking to families who are concerned about their child's ''readiness'' for school :)