by Sunny Im-Wang, PsyD, SSP
Academic standards for today’s kindergarteners are much more rigorous than they were for today’s parents. Nevertheless, research indicates that kindergarten teachers feel that “executive functioning” skills, or skills that allow a child to control his or her behavior and emotions in a variety of settings, are better indicators of school readiness in today’s five-year-olds than academic readiness skills such as knowing the alphabet or being able to hold a pencil (Dockett & Perry, 2003). In fact, 75 percent of kindergarten teachers polled by Heaviside and Farris (1993) felt that children who are in good physical health, who have the ability to verbally communicate wants and needs, and who are curious and enthusiastic about participating in new activities are likely to successfully transition to a formal school environment and be successful during their kindergarten year. Fifty percent of the same group of teachers felt that behavioral control, empathy, and socialization skills were also important skills for students to possess prior to entering kindergarten. Teachers of preschool-aged children can directly influence and enhance the development of these skills that will help ensure school success.
The following are key social/emotional skills that children need as they begin school:
- Ability to develop positive relationships with adults and other children
- Ability to communicate emotions and feelings
- Ability to listen to and follow directions
- Ability to solve social problems
Children who have not learned these skills often develop behavior problems that then need to be managed, so it is important to expose them to activities and experiences that will enhance the development of these skills prior to their first day of formal schooling.
In order to foster self-confidence in young children, it is essential to use positive language as much as possible. When giving praise, it is important to be specific and praise actions and behaviors. For example, “You are doing a great job sharing your toy with Bobby,” is a much more informative statement than, “You are being good right now.” Telling a child specifically what he is doing right informs him of how to behave again in the future. These verbal reinforcements of positive behaviors will naturally decrease negative behaviors, because children want to behave in ways that please their caregivers and provide themselves with positive attention. It is this positive attention that also increases their sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Prior to entering school, children should be exposed to a variety of social situations. Whether through team sports, group activities, lessons, preschool experiences, or extended family interactions, children learn how to get along with other children by being around other children. In order to successfully interact with others in these situations, preschool teachers should teach children how to initiate and maintain interactions with others, to solve problems, to communicate their emotions in appropriate ways, and to control their anger (Fox, et al., 2003).Take advantage of children’s personalities and activity preferences when engaging them in activities with other children. If a child is a very active child, engaging in physical activities with other children might be more beneficial for that particular child than, for example, taking a trip to the local library for story time. They are likely to find “kindred spirits” with whom to interact, and to experience these interactions as enjoyable.
It is important that young children learn to communicate their feelings and emotions as specifically and correctly as they can, as well as to recognize the emotions of others. Children need a range of “emotional vocabulary words” in order to do this, and preschool teachers are in a great position to teach a variety of these words to children. It is important, for example, that children understand the meanings and implications of words such as frustrated, proud, afraid, excited, worried, and confused. Teachers can model the appropriate use of these feeling words by expressing their own feelings as specifically as possible, as well as by pointing out specific feelings that they observe in the children. When reading out loud to children, teachers can frequently stop to discuss the feelings of the characters involved, and also ask the children how they might feel if they were in similar situations as described in the stories. It can also be helpful to have children practice labeling the emotions and feelings of other children either during role-playing activities or by looking at photographs of other children.
Listening and following directions
The ability to listen to and follow directions is probably the most challenging behavioral skill that a five-year-old can accomplish. Children must direct and sustain their attention on someone else, understand what is being said, remember what to do, and then successfully execute the directive. To teach these skills, start slow and simple with easy, one-step directions. It can be helpful to cue children with an auditory signal, such as a clapping pattern, that alerts them it is time to stop talking and listen to the teacher. The children can repeat the clapping pattern back as an indication that they are ready to listen. Pairing auditory directions with visual cues, such as photographs or simple lists, can help children to remember the direction and stay focused while carrying out the specified behavior. Once single-step directions are effectively followed, two-step directions can be given. Again, visual cues such as photos in sequential order or a written list (for older children) can be very effective.
In the school environment, children will be faced with a variety of social problems that they will need to be able to solve on their own or with minimal help from their teachers. Arguments on the playground, hurt feelings, frustration over what is packed for lunch, etc., are all potential minefields where a child can either learn to cope effectively or break down. Prepare children for these potential pitfalls by presenting hypothetical (or real) stories and scenarios to the children and then guiding them through the analysis and solution to each problem. Teaching a specific problem-solving strategy can be helpful: identify the problem, think of some solutions, discuss the pros and cons of each solution, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome. The use of role-playing activities can serve as a great way for children to practice their problem-solving skills.
In sum, research has indicated that skills related to children’s successful behavioral and emotional control are considered more crucial to their successful transition to kindergarten than their mastery of pre-academic reading and math skills. Teachers of daycare centers and preschools are in an excellent position to help foster the development of these skills for children, ensuring that they will be emotionally and behaviorally ready for the challenges of the formal school environment.
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References Dockett, S., & Perry, B.(2003). The transition to school: What’s important? Educational Leadership, 60(7), 30-33. Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (2003). The teaching pyramid: A model for supporting social competence and preventing challenging behavior in young children. Young Children, 58(4), 48-53. Heaviside, S., & Farris, S.(1993). Public school kindergarten teachers’ views on children’s readiness for school. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.