Back-to-school: Social-emotional readiness

Blue Birds, Busy Bees or Dancing Dolphins – Walk down the hallway of a typical preschool and you’ll see classroom names that inspire a sense of identity and belonging in toddlers and preschoolers. Children, often the center of attention in a devoted family, move out into a new child-sized world where they are part of something bigger than themselves – a preschool class. Schools are loving, nurturing places but they are, in many ways, different from home.

Is your child ready for school? Preschool readiness isn’t about knowing letters and colors. Preschool readiness is about a child speaking up when he needs to use the bathroom, opening her own lunchbox, waiting for 30 seconds while another child finishes his turn, and discovering new opportunities to learn and play. Developmentally appropriate early childhood programs meet children “where they are” instead of pigeon-holing children with restrictive expectations. But school also encourages a broad set of social-emotional skills in young children teaching them how to be part of a group.

Parents can help prepare a child for the preschool experience: first by building your child’s confidence and teaching a few preliminary social behaviors; second with practice sharing time and space with other people. After school begins, it’s important to continue to support the classroom teacher who is juggling the needs of individual children to create a whole that is bigger than its parts through bonding, empathy and shared goals.

Build social confidence

• Give your child practice in a variety of social settings with you shadowing instead of always leading. Create opportunities for your child to interact with store clerks, bring cookies to a neighbor, or take the mail from the mail carrier.
• Harness your child’s strengths and interests. Send him into the classroom eager to share who he is and what he can do. Build a repertoire of “social currency”: smiles and favorite songs, familiar books and stories about favorite toys, and wearing his favorite clothes.
• Stay confident when your child expresses separation challenges. Change is hard at all ages but especially for little ones. Let your child know that it’s okay to be sad, confused, or uncertain about new routines while continuing to focus on the fun, kindness and excitement of a new school adventure. An ambiguous parent undermines a child’s ability to connect with new teachers, new classmates and new routines.

Practice simple social skills

• Model and practice social greetings and good byes. Take time to introduce your child to new people and include your child in polite greetings. Social etiquette is empowering to young children as they give and receive positive attention. It is also essential in making friends.
• Use “please” and “thank you” to create a helping household. Notice all the ways your child helps at home: carrying groceries, taking clothes to the laundry, or filling the dog bowl. Kind words are shared social currency. They also set a foundation of helpfulness that goes a long way to bring children together in group settings.
• Practice following directions and accepting limits at home. Listening games like Simon Says or Copy Cat are fun while helping children pay attention to words. Silly games help children feel successful and proud. Children also need to understand limits like “no”, “another time”, and to transition from one activity to another before coming to school.
• Show children how to speak up. Help your child verbalize his “needs”: from asking for a drink of water to asking for help on the playground. Explain that teachers and staff are there to listen and to help. You can even practice at home through role-playing games.

Share time and space with others

• Practice “waiting” for short intervals (10-30 seconds to start). Acknowledge your child’s requests but don’t drop everything immediately to do as your child says, unless it’s a matter of safety.
• Help your child to be aware of other people’s space. For example, walking around others instead of through and over them, waiting for someone else who might be in the way, or not grabbing objects out of other people’s hands.
• Monitor physical conflict to avoid hitting, pushing, shoving and biting. Intervene before problem solving becomes physical: model appropriate language and problem solving with phrases like “excuse me”, “I’m playing with that now” or “can I have a turn?”
• Look for opportunities to notice shared experiences with groups of people: birthday parties, in restaurants, movie theaters, places of worship. You’re teaching an awareness of other people’s point-of-view and building a foundation for kindness and compassion.

It’s true there’s no place like home. But school is an exciting adventure with new friends and the chance to be part of something extraordinary – a class with a very cute name.

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