Some children barrel toward unfamiliarity without a second thought. Super tall slide in the park? Yes! A chance to touch a boa constrictor? Hooray! Other kids? Not so much. They cling to your leg at birthday parties and have fits at the dentist.
As summer wanes and back-to-school time approaches, your wary child may be visibly or verbally anxious. They may shut down because they lack the vocabulary (or confidence, or trust) to express their fears. They may refuse to discuss school or revert to younger, developmentally inappropriate behaviors.
Here are tips from a longtime elementary school teacher and mom on getting your child ready for pre-k or kindergarten. Consider this your pre-k/kindergarten readiness checklist!
Play with classmates over the summer
Many schools give out contact information for classmates’ families. If not, request it. Set up a whole group gathering in a local park in June or July to see with whom your child clicks. Then, set up one-on-one playdates with the kids your child liked best. Host them at your home so you can get to know the new kids, too! Offer structure and supervision as needed. Making art, exploring nature, building forts, and cooking are perennial favorites for playdate activities.
Get to know the school grounds and staff
Talk to school administrators about visiting the school over the summer. If possible, play on the playground a few times. Walk the halls to locate the bathrooms, and practice turning on the sink and flushing the toilets. Find the front office. Introduce yourselves to the office and janitorial staff, who often work year-round. Learn their names. They are instrumental to the school and your child’s early learning experiences.
Using stuffed animals as classmates, set up a pretend classroom in the safe confines of your home. Make a rug area and a desk/chair area and practice transitioning between the two by singing a familiar song or ringing chimes or a bell. Practice drawing with a deadline (say “Two more minutes!”), writing your name on the paper, and putting the paper in a certain spot to simulate turning it in. Ask to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Alternate roles so that sometimes your child is the student and sometimes the teacher. Call your child Ms. or Mr. or Teacher when they are in charge. And don’t forget to raise your hand!
Meet the teacher
Teachers are off-duty during the summer, but they return to work at least one week before school actually begins. Arrange to meet your child’s teacher briefly in the classroom. Have your child make a drawing or card for the teacher, and bring a baked good or a flower to sweeten the deal. Do not ask overly personal or philosophical questions. Keep it light and easy. Now is not the time to divulge concerns—do that over email. You can, however, ask if they have any last-minute advice for your anxious pre-k kid, or if they want to share any kindergarten readiness tips.
Enjoy books together
Today’s 5-year-olds are put under an intense amount of scrutiny and pressure to perform, and are often expected to learn to read before first grade. Do not try to teach your child to read, but do read out loud to your child every night as part of your bedtime routine. Librarians are a fabulous resource for what picture books kids are loving right now. Just as Pixar movies have blurred the line between children’s and adult entertainment, contemporary children’s books are hilarious and enjoyable for readers of every age. Gone are the days of preachy characters, sappy happy endings, and forced rhymes. Try The Book With No Pictures and This is Not My Hat.
Establish a healthy sleep schedule
This task feels impossible with summer’s long sunny days and endless evening events, but do what you can to put your young child to bed before 8:30pm — 9:00pm at the very latest. After dinner, do not allow children to have screen time—studies show that the light from screens is too stimulating to our senses. Bath, cozy pajamas, and books, then lights out! Let kids know that it’s okay to rest quietly in bed for some time before falling all the way asleep.
Use art to express feelings about school
Encourage your child to explore any uncomfortable feelings using art as an outlet. Put newspaper down on the kitchen table or go outside, throw an apron or old clothes on, and let your child make a mess with materials that are sometimes forbidden—finger paints, acrylics, watercolors, glitter, glue, clay—not just plain paper and crayons (though those can work, too!). Work alongside your child on your own art. Give the prompts: “What does your brain say about starting school? How does your heart feel?” Discuss your child’s hopes and dreams for the start of school, helping them to articulate and illustrate them.
Go back-to-school shopping together
Make shopping an exciting part of the pre-k and kindergarten readiness process. Go to stores together and let your child pick out a backpack, a lunch box, clothes, and shoes. Don’t wait until the last week of summer when stores are chaotic and crowded! Give your child time and space to make thoughtful decisions about what to buy. Lay out your child’s favorite outfit the night before school to smooth the morning routine.
Once school starts, be sure to stay in close communication with your child’s teacher, and continue using these how-to tips to keep your child sharing with you about their back-to-school feelings.