Ask the grumpies: Kindergarten skillz

Becky asks:

I wanted to ask – what is the “minimum” I am supposed to do to prepare my four year-old for kindergarten? He has all the basics, I think (can count to 20, does some simple addition in his head, knows the alphabet, recognizes letters, their sounds, and associated words). I have taught him some French words, and he knows a lot of Spanish from daycare. He just started printing practice, but he is not that fond of it! I have the starfall apps and we’ve started looking at them, but I often feel like a slacker Mom in this department. Thoughts? He is currently in the uni childcare, no preschool, so the teaching falls to us.

What do you really need for kindergarten?

1. potty training (some accidents ok)
2. self-feeding (hands ok)

Unless you’re going to a fancy highly competitive coastal k, your kid is already ahead and would be ready for 1st grade in much of the country, skills-wise. If it is half day k, you might be able to get away with no self feeding, but that would be a little odd.

Ideally your child will also be able to sit still for reasonable periods of time, will listen to the teacher, takes instruction, and plays relatively nicely with others.  Mostly being able to put shoes and jacket on are also good things, and to pull pants etc. back up after going potty.  These are skills that most children who went to almost any kind of daycare have.  But there’s still kids who stayed at home who aren’t used to not being the center of attention, and they learn those skills in kindergarten rather than coming in with them.

It doesn’t hurt to know numbers, colors, letters, scissors, patterns, printing, etc. but those should happen in kindergarten or first grade if your child doesn’t get them before that time.

Competitive kindergartens with tests and so on, have a lot more requirements, but they only exist in NYC and a few other places.  There’s an entire industry that exists just to fake these exams out, so a little Googling and maybe a book purchase or two can help for those in that situation.  But for the majority of us, it’s ok to just make sure the kid is out of diapers.

Grumpy Nation parents, what did your children need to know/already know before kindergarten?

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20 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Kindergarten skillz”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    None of my children went to daycare.

    By the time my third was almost two-years-old, I was friends with the past first grade teacher of my then seven-year-old. I saw her almost daily in the summer at the public pool, swim team, and ball games as she had a boy the approximate age of my seven-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy. My youngest endeared herself to everyone and actually knew who was “important” in our world. I remarked to the teacher that the two-year-old now had the chore of putting away the utensils after I removed sharp knives. I related how she could barely get them out of the dishwasher and took forever to figure out where each utensil went but quickly became very proficient. (I put one knife, fork, spoon, and soup spoon in the drawer divider for a model.) I thought she would break the drawer because she had to stand on tiptoes and hang onto the drawer to see in the put the utensils in the drawer.

    The teacher was very sincere and very impressed. She said, “You are teaching her the most important “reading readiness” skill–sorting. Most children don’t come to kindergarten with that skill.” She said children that did not go to kindergarten came to her in the first grade not knowing how to sort colors and shapes.

    Before my son was a year, we “talked” about colors and picked out all the red cars, red blocks, and red toys. I always said things like “Let’s put on your blue overalls” when he was just a lying-about baby with no skills at all…lol. Later, we picked up all the red blocks to put in the block basket/bucket at one time. Then, we moved on to blue blocks. We sorted constantly, it seems.

    My son who now is a high school and college English teacher decided when he was about seven that he just did not care for reading and refused to progress or read until I told him he could not get a driver’s license until he could read. That lit a fire under him.

    Most children probably know which way the text runs–left to right, the up and down of a book, and recognize their own name and letters by kindergarten. There are just organizational skills/facts that come before actual reading. Sorting was just an everyday part of our life, not something I decided would make them excellent readers.

    I would say the “reading readiness skill” of sorting is a most important skill since the first-grade teacher commented on that skill and the fact most children did not have that skill. Then, when it comes time to circle all the bunnies or put an X on the blue circles, a child has already practiced discrimination. In my opinion, reading is the most important skill anyone can learn…well, that and not getting into traffic.

  2. bogart Says:

    Background: my kid went to very small (<=5 kids, 1 adult) daycares/preschools until he was 4, and we are pretty un-social people, so he had very, very limited exposure to large groups, venues, etc. Also, he's sensitive to noise and a fan of everyone following the rules (i.e finds witnessing others breaking rules upsetting).

    He (now) goes to a mid-sized public elementary school that must have about 360 kids, total, in it across 6 years (roughly 60 kids per grade) and that is directly adjacent to a larger middle school — they share some facilities (gym, etc.). And (of course?) kids have to be capable of doing things like lining up with their classmates and walking to the cafeteria.

    It was pretty clear to us that absent some kind of prep the pre-K to K transition was going to be a big leap for him, so for his last year pre-K we put him in a larger preschool for 2 days/week. He was in a class of about 20 kids (2 adults) and one of 2 (3?) such classes, and the school served 0-5 year olds (so other age groups also) and had things like a classroom in one building and the lunchroom in a different building.

    That's really the only conscious prep we did to get him ready for K. He had WONDERFUL K teachers, and it was all grand. I can't honestly even remember what he knew when he started. Likely his alphabet and numbers 1-20 and maybe a bit more, but other than, you know, life + whatever he got in preschools (and we did not select those for academics, indeed, we focused on play/activity-oriented ones) we did zero prep in that regard. And from spending time with his kindergarten class I can tell you that he was one of plenty of kids who had a decent chance of e.g. getting his coat on the right way 'round but also a reasonable chance of needing help with that task, and definitely with starting the zipper and so on. In K he was academically average, solidly at the middle of the bell curve for what they expected, and now at the end of 1st grade he's marginally "above average" in reading and maybe a bit more in math. And I try pretty diligently to ignore his academics, beyond making sure he's (a) going to school, (b) behaving himself, and (c) practicing (i.e. using the skills he's supposed to be learning), because I feel pretty strongly that that (my neglect) is what works best for him.

  3. Leah Says:

    I have friends whose kids didn’t know all their letters, numbers, etc before going to K and turned out fine. I knew how to read before I went to K, and I still enjoyed “letter day” and whatnot. There’s such a wide variety of skills kids bring in. Having a kid who can listen, sit still, and work with others seems to be the most important skills I’ve noticed in working with K age kids (I taught pre-K and K summer camp for awhile). Certainly, if you find out your kid is behind academically, then figure out how to work with the kid. Otherwise, enjoy the fact that the teacher is trained to educate your kid, and you just have to work with him/her to reinforce.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    Head Start was created to help disadvantaged kids be ready for kindergarten. From what I understand, if you have only one parent, or your parents have to work way too many hours, one of the problems is that they don’t have as much time to interact with you, so you just don’t have as much vocabulary as the other kids.

    I’ve always thought kindergarten is where you learn numbers, counting, and letters in preparation for learning math and reading in first grade. Also, you learn about sharing, using your words, and finger painting.

  5. Cloud Says:

    I won’t lie and pretend already knowing how to count and read didn’t help my daughter adjust to kindergarten- we sent her to a Spanish immersion school, and since she knew very little Spanish, I think it helped her to already understand the concept of letters making specific sounds and to know how to count, so she could focus on learning the new words for the numbers.

    But that doesn’t mean she NEEDED to have those skills before Kindergarten. She had classmates that didn’t, and most of them have done just fine. A few continue to struggle. I think that is more to do with other issues and not what they did or did not know when they started Kindergarten, though. (We are in public school in San Diego, if that helps you calibrate.)

    She was in day care/preschool, and that helped prepare her. They did not teach her how to read, though. For that matter, neither did we, really. She taught herself based on some Leapfrog DVDs she loved and just asking us how to spell things. We certainly supported and encouraged her interest, and ignored the people who warned us she would be bored when she started school. She continues to be at the top of her class, and has yet to complain of being bored. I’m sure the Spanish Immersion helps with that- there’s always more vocabulary to learn. But I think we also forget how much non-academic learning is going on in school. I think she is learning a lot about how to get along with a diverse group of peers. So far those lessons have been gentle ones, but I can still tell she’s working hard on learning the social rules, and that seems to keep her interested even when they are working on academic skills she already has. (We do talk a bit about when it is OK to ignore those rules… but that is not on topic here.)

    In terms of what her preschool class teaches kids to prepare them for Kindergarten: they start working on writing, but there is wide variation in abilities. They can all count at least to ten, and most can probably go beyond that. They know their letters well. Towards the end of the year, they start working on a few sight words, but again there is wide variation on whether that sticks. I can’t really think of anything else. My younger daughter is just starting that class now, so I could tell you better in a few months!

  6. Chris Says:

    I hate to generalize about what kids entering kindergarten “should” know, because there is so much variation at that age! What is completely appropriate for one kid may be completely inappropriate for another. It has been fun seeing how the kids in my oldest’s class have progressed physically, emotionally and academically from K-3. There was a huge range, from the kid who was reading at the 6th grade level but throwing all-out temper tantrums complete with tears on a regular basis who now is much less volatile and learning to control emotions to the kid who was very emotionally mature but went from not reading at all to reading at a high level and doing times tables in one year. The early grades are a time of considerable development at all levels, and as long as your child has a caring, well-trained teacher, they should be fine.

  7. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Oldest kid knew how to read/write. Second kid, starting this fall (private K, he misses public cut-off by 3 weeks) does not really know, but may figure both out this summer. He’s ready, he just is taking his time piecing it all together.

  8. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    One thing that I feel like I really had to work on before kindy for both my boys was being able to wipe their butts well after going #2. Yes, they were potty trained long ago, but proficient butt wiping can still be a challenge, even at age 5.

    The education stuff seemed to come very easily and quickly once they start school full time if they know the basics (counting, colors, shapes, letters).

  9. hypatia cade Says:

    So Headstart gets a lot of flack but what it does do well is articulate a series of goals for kids to learn and it’s explicitly about school-readiness. As an SLP/child development person I think they provide good resources for thinking about what it means to be ready…

    This pdf https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/docs/sr-goals.pdf is a pretty good list with examples (note that lots of the goals are not explicitly academic). For example: “Children will display levels of attention, emotion, and behavior in the classroom that are appropriate to the situation and the supports available. This includes persisting with challenging tasks (e.g., puzzles, listening to stories) when the activity is appropriate and an adult is present and provides support; showing a range of positive and negative emotions under circumstances in which those reactions are appropriate; and showing physical activity and behavior that fit with the activity and demonstrate awareness of limits and others’ experiences (e.g., movement that is not intrusive). Children’s levels and range of expression of attention, emotion, and behavior in the classroom also show connections and responsiveness to adults’ feedback and support”

    This link https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/hs/sr/approach/cdelf is a nice interactive picture – click on a piece of the pie and you get goals/strategies/rationales for why this is important.

    Kindergarten is a leveler — prior to Kgtn there is a lot of variability in print exposure, self-help, numeracy, etc. After Kgtn, everyone has had much more similar experiences and the variability in abilities is much reduced. I’d ask questions like – can he sit still for 10-15 min for story time? Can he feed himself? Can she recognize symbols (e.g. the M for Macdonalds) that are reliable in the environment? Does she use words more than physical means of getting her way?

  10. hypatia cade Says:

    P.S. A really good childcare program will also be targeting these things. Not just parents and preschools.

  11. becca Says:

    I shall use this as a moment to shamelessly kidbrag, as there are few places I can do so without being a complete jerk and I feel like the general pro-Awesomeness stance of the Grumpies will allow it. Please note, I am not saying anyone else’s kid should be at this level before Kindergarten!

    Anyway, first it’s worth noting my Roo has been to oodles of daycare/preschools (some great, some not so much), and we work with hir a LOT. Dad shamelessly tormented him with daily writing practice despite much Suffering and Drama, as did the school run preschool last year.
    Ze can: run a mile (in about 14 minutes); jump off playground equipment at a 12 year old friend level (MUCH TO MY HORROR); offer comfort to a sad friend without prompting (sometimes); play uno/crazy 8s/monopoly (w/help for some money calculations)/fluxx/Set/chess (ze has trouble remembering chess but a notable affinity for it); copy legible paragraphs/letters with punctuation; read level 1 and 2 books to me somewhat fluently and with expression; sit still for stories for a least an hour; tell you our address; decipher/reproduce 1/2/3, 1/1/2, 1/2/2, 1/1/2/2, 1/2/3/4, 1/2/3/4/5 patterns; tell you how to make change for simple amounts; tell you what all the coins are worth; do addition/subtraction fluently for numbers less than 20; save allowance for desired items for at least a week (resisting the temptation of The Gumball); sing songs with motions that require at least seven steps; hop/skip/gallop/do pink fluffy stars/do an excellent handstand with wall for balance/do a hilarious handstand without wall for balance.
    Ze meets all of the end-of-Kindergarten objectives the school system gave us except for tying shoes (we haven’t bought hir any ones with laces yet), and perhaps “responds appropriately to authority figures” (I never did master that one, personally). Actually ze meets the vast majority of the end-of-first grade ones for our district, but not the swanky district my boss sends his kids to. And that’s not even getting into what ze’s most precocious in- ze is out soccering me hard (though World Cup has left hir flailing about hilariously lately, hoping for a Yellow Card).

    And just in case my insufferable smugness is too overpowering, ze still wets the bed at night (not always, but more often than not when stressed). And ze *can* brush zir teeth, but does not *like* to. AND what Sandyl said about wiping. *sigh* We’re working on it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We strongly recommend kid-bragging on this blog, so long as you’re not bragging about your kid being a bully or something. And no need to counter with what your kid isn’t doing yet– those will come… eventually!

    • Leah Says:

      oh, shoe tying. My mom says all three of us had most K skills mastered before K, but shoe-tying almost held us back from progressing on. Our K teacher evaluated a variety of skills. Every kid was good at something different.

  12. hush Says:

    No need to feel like a “slacker Mom” – I mean, does your partner (you said “us” in your question) also feel that way? Is too much of this particular type of work falling to you just because you are a Mom – and if so, is this how you want it to be? You can always use I-statements to have conversations with your partner to determine how s/he will take on more of the child education workload. And my hunch is your child’s “uni daycare” is probably already doing plenty to prepare him for whatever your local Kinder norms may be.

    “Unless you’re going to a fancy highly competitive coastal k, your kid is already ahead and would be ready for 1st grade in much of the country, skills-wise.” Yes, amen. Context matters.

    Is the Kinder your son will attend located in a place with high-SES characteristics such as a tony suburb, or a professional-class urban enclave where most of the kids have had some high-quality daycare or preschool? If so, then yes, he will fit in better with the norms there (and BTW it’s up to you to decide if that’s important to you) if he has some competencies in literacy and numeracy, plus already has the social skills basics down (e.g. developmentally normal 4/5 y.o. kids who are still hitting/biting other kids — in the specific context of a wealthier school full of parents who spend a lot of time in the school — are extremely frowned upon).

    Is the Kinder your son will attend located in a place where a significant number of his classmates will be learning English for the first time and/or may be eligible for free and reduced lunch (such as the rural area where I live)? If so, school is a lot more “come as you are,” and based on what you’ve said your son can already do, I’m confident there is nothing else you, your partner, and his daycare will really need to do to prepare him.

    My data points: Our local rural public schools fully admit they cannot meet the needs of gifted children. My son skipped Kindergarten, and my 4-year-old daughter is starting private Montessori Kinder this fall, a year early.

  13. becky Says:

    Thank you G-Nation for these helpful comments – very reassuring to hear! Just to give some more context: we are a middle-income family in a very high-SES ‘hood, but the unique aspect of where we live is that many/majority of the children at the small, public school my kid will be attending will be what the local board calls “Early Language Learners” or ELL. So kind of a social/cultural anomaly in that you have families with high-income and non-English speaking at home, also in a city context. And we are in Canada where charter schools aren’t as frequent and really only the super-rich send their kids to private pre-schools and elementary schools. I am not worried about the ELL issue for my non-ELL kid though, because from what I have seen of the research, non-ELL kids tend to benefit from the instructional approaches used to target these learners, too (i.e using more visuals in learning, music, etc.).

    I am confident that the university daycare has equipped the kid with all of the necessary social skills – he can generally follow along with all of the routines, instructions and group tasks, but they have mentioned that he is starting to do some of that “silly” behaviour that is common for 5 year-olds, which they feel suggests he is ready for more of an “academic” challenge. They do not do any instruction in terms of letters or numbers, although they do creative art, music and “science” projects with the kids (such as building a space shuttle and learning about the planets, hatching butterflies, etc.). And yes, he can do the #2 wiping thing :) – but prefers that we do it for him when he is at home (I mean, who wouldn’t, right?).

    Really I’ve just been beating myself up because with a toddler and full-time work both my partner and I are too lazy/overwhelmed to do printing practice, and the kid is not at all interested.


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