Monday, 3 November 2014

Is your child ready for school? Expert advice you haven't heard before.

It's that time of year where the reality of your little one starting school next year is starting to hit home. Enrolment has been confirmed, transition days are happening and pictures of angelic little ones wearing their newly purchased uniforms and too big broad brimmed hats are popping up on your facebook feed.

But as your pre-schooler continues to run around like a crazy person yelling 'poo poo head' or refuses, yet again, to put their own shoes on, you may find yourself more frequently contemplating the question 'are they REALLY ready to start school?!?'

I know, 'advice you haven't heard before' is a big call.  However I have been pleasantly surprised with the helpful advice my son's transition program has provided.  As a teacher I didn't expect to find much of the information new to me, so I was happy to pick up some tips from our school's speech pathologist, child psychologist and experienced teachers which I'm keen to share here.

MJ turns five in February next year and is starting Prep in January at our local Government school.
To assist in a smooth start to Prep, his school has run quite a comprehensive transition program.
He has attended the school for a one hour session once a month since July and while he has enjoyed art and music sessions the school has run information sessions for parents covering a wide range of topics including language development and how to help your child with maths.

In this post, I've tried to focus on the advice that I found was different from the usual 'make sure they can open their drink bottle, read to them, pack healthy snacks' advice I have come across in the past.

Tips to help prepare your child for school:

1.  Make comments when you talk to your child rather than using closed questions.

When our children are first learning to talk our instinct is to ask lots of questions to encourage them to talk more; however asking questions doesn't actually help improve their communication as questions don't model language.

Young children need their parents to model language so they can develop an understanding of tone and expression and to broaden their vocabulary.

Initially you start by expanding on your child's sentences e.g. "there's a car" and you say "oh yes, that's a red shiny car isn't it?" and you can progress to modelling more complex sentences. e.g using 'because' 'until' and 'so' in sentences to link ideas and concepts.

As a guide, when your child starts school they should be using complex sentences.  i.e. I don't want to go outside because it is wet and cold'.

When to seek expert advice:
If you have difficulty understanding your child; if your child is getting frustrated at not being able to express him/herself; if there is a marked difference between your child's level of communication and their peers; if your child is using few words and very short sentences; if you child is stuttering

2.  Never, ever, ever share stories of your maths failure or dislike. 

Research shows that the single biggest determinant in your child's success or failure at maths is their mindset.  If your child thinks they will enjoy and be good at maths then they will be more successful than the child that thinks the opposite, even if each child actually has the same ability level.

Always speak with enthusiasm about maths regardless of your own experiences or difficulties. Highlight how useful and essential maths is in our daily lives.  Recognise and praise when your child successfully uses maths in real life.

A fun maths game to try at home is called 'blocking'. Select two identical sets of ten Lego blocks. Ask your child to create a pattern or structure with the blocks without you seeing.  They then have to describe to you how to recreate the pattern or structure with your identical set of blocks.  See how close you get and then change roles.

3.  Don't just read the story.

Most of us are aware of the importance of books and reading but it can be easy to fall in the habit of one quick story before bed or trying to skip ahead a few pages without your child realising (Come on, I know I'm not the only one doing it!)

When you have the time, you can try retelling the story in your own words or ask your child to retell it in their own words.  I like to ask MJ to retell the story from kinder storytime in the car on the way home.

Ask if your child understands the meaning of more difficult words or ask 'what other word could we use here?'  You can also ask questions about how the character felt, what they did, what else they could do.  This also helps with emotional development and problem solving.  You can also try coming up with a sequel to your child's favourite story.

3. Help your child develop an understanding of past and future tense

Children need to understand past and future tense such as yesterday, today and tomorrow.  At our transition session parents mentioned the idea of using a calender labelled with extracurricular activities to help develop this understanding.

It is common for children to have difficulty with past tense e.g. 'I tolded you.' Just simply model the correct grammar for them 'yes, you told me' and move on.

4.  When you play with your child, be a responder rather than a director.

You are a director if you ask lots of questions, tell you child to 'go and play' and when you are playing with your child you give lots of instructions and talk a lot.  Of course we are all going to do some of these things some of the time (okay the 'go and play bit' a lot of the time!) but the idea is that we should try to be more of a responder.

That is we should make comments more than asking questions, ask for their ideas, leave pauses, follow their lead and expand on their ideas.  What do they say, try to 'surrender' to the play!

I guess this means I need to actually play with MJ a bit more!!

5.  Focus on sounds rather than letters

Try to talk about and notice sounds rather than just focusing on letter recognition.  It is more helpful for language development and spelling if your child is able to recognise the sounds associated with letters. When they start school, children should be able to identify the first sound of their name and also a few other sounds associated with their most frequently used words.

It is also helpful to play games around recognising the beats (syllables) in a word and to use rhyming words.  Try reading a rhyming book and leave a pause when you get to the last rhyming word and see if your child can correctly guess the word.

6.  Pretend, pretend, pretend

Pretending builds language as it provides opportunities to explore familiar and less familiar situations.  When your child is pretending they need to use language to describe and explain.

Now this is a tough one for me as imaginative play with my four year old son is the surest way to make five minutes feel like five hours.  One way I've tried to overcome this is by playing pretend and imaginary games in the car - multi-tasking at its best!  We pick a make-believe setting such as space, the time of dinosaurs or a car race, and we then describe what we can see happening out the window as we travel.  I rather enjoy hearing how MJ's mind works as he comes up with some pretty cool scenarios.

7.  Ensure you and your child knows it is okay to feel bad sometimes.

In order to be emotionally prepared for school your child needs a wide range of words to describe and express their emotions.  They also need to build a range of coping strategies.

An important part of this is teaching your child that it is okay to feel bad sometimes and to make sure they know that bad feelings pass.  If your child is not happy all of the time at school don't automatically assume something is wrong that requires your immediate intervention.

Encourage talking and listening and don't try to fix everything, let them have their struggles.

Role model a flexible approach to problem solving and allow them opportunities to be a problem solver and being assertive.

8.  Determine your child's preferred way to unwind 

We all hear about how overwhelming Term 1 can be for the little Preppies and how tired they can be by the end of the day.  That's why it can be helpful to recognise what their preferred method of unwinding is after a day at kinder.

Some children will be most communicative about their day on the car ride/walk home others need this time to just relax and stop thinking. For these children it can be more beneficial to ask about their day during their bath or just before they go to sleep.  Parents are often concerned that their child is using this as a stalling technique for going to sleep, but rather many children are most relaxed at this time and they are most willing and able to discuss their day.

Some children may need to spend sometime alone in their room playing Lego or Dolls to unwind others may need a chance to run off some physical tension.  Try to identify their individual calming routine so you can implement it from the start of Term 1 next year.

funny sign school start teachers
Image source

9.  Always ask specific questions about their day. 

It is important to enquire about your child's day to demonstrate that you are interested in their day and show that they are important to you.  But try to avoid questions such as 'What did you do today? or 'How was your day? as they are generally too big and you will just get a 'Good', 'I can't remember' or 'Nothing' in return.

Simple Simon and Company has an excellent post on '25 Ways to Ask Your Kids "So How Was School Today?" without asking "So how was school today?"

My favourites include:
#2.  Tell me something that made you laugh today.
#3.  If you could choose who would you like to sit by in class?  (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class?  Why?)
#4.  Where is the coolest place at the school?
#5.  Tell me a weird word that you heard today.  (Or something weird that someone said.)
#6.  If I called your teacher tonight what would she tell me about you?
#7.  How did you help somebody today?
#11.  When were you bored today?
#12.  If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed up someone who would you want them to take?
#22.  If you got to be the teacher tomorrow what would you do?
#23.  Is there anyone in your class that needs a time out?
#24.  If you could switch seats with anyone in the class who would you trade with?  Why?
The other key is to ask one just more question before you allow your worrying parental instincts to kick in. For example if you ask who they played with and they respond "no one" it can be easy to quickly hit the panic button and assume they have no friends.  This will make us come across as quite anxious in our responses and it will make your child more concerned about the situation than they need to be.

Our school psychologist says we should instead try asking just one more key question - "And what happened next?".  She reassured us that on most occasions they will tell you that a minute later they started playing with someone else and you'll realise it wasn't a big deal for them after all and by asking one more question you avoided making a bid deal of it.

If you are in doubt at all about any of the advice above make sure you speak to your child's pre-school teacher and start conversations with the primary school as soon as possible.

Otherwise trust your instinct and enjoy picking out a new lunch box for your little one, safe in the knowledge that the majority of kids in your child's prep class will also think that 'poo' is the funniest word in the world!

P.S If you have a child starting high school, the single biggest stress for them is being able to correctly use the combination lock on their locker.  Make sure you practice this with them before they start their first day!

What is your best advice about getting your child ready to start school?

Linking up with Essentially Jess for I Blog On Tuesdays - check it out for a variety of great reads!

Keep smiling


  1. This is really great. Even now with Mr almost 3, when I pick him up from daycare (he goes twice a week) I always ask what books he read, what games he has played during the day. I have to admit I'm already starting to worry a little about what we will do when our baby boy (17mths) is ready for school. He was born in May and will therefore be one of the youngest in the class. If he had of behaved himself, he should have arrived late July and been one of the oldest in his year. I know there is still a lot of time to think about what we will do, and naturally we will also be guided by what his teachers/school thinks as well. I love the sound of the transition program your little one is doing, I think that would be very useful to help gauge whether they are ready for school or not.

    1. Thanks Lauren. You'll have to move to Victoria, our cut off is the end of April so your little man would be the oldest in the class! I am impressed with the transition program - I hope that extends to next year too :)

  2. Hi there! I found you via IBOT - what a fantastic post. I too am a Reception (SA) teacher and am just about to start transition sessions with next years little ones. This is great advice, I can think of a few friends who I should share it with.
    Here's some of my starting school tips
    - meet up for play dates with other parents from the class
    - role play 'schools'
    - practise the morning routine and drive/walk to school
    - be prepared for how you might handle separation anxiety and have some strategies in mind.

    1. Thanks Lauren, it's great to hear that a primary teacher thinks the advice is okay - secondary school can feel a mile away from what happens in Prep! I love your extra tips, it reminds me I need to organise a few more play dates for my little man :)

  3. WOW Danielle - just finding your blog via IBOT. I have a preppie (our second child) starting school next year. Perhaps I'm a big more blaze being the second, but there is some great advice in here that I need to follow. I think he's ready (we actually got his uniforms this morning and because he is small, they are sooo huge on him). He has his big sister, who will be in Year 6 to help him, but I still don't really want to let him go. Sigh!

    1. I love how all the Preps rock up on the first day in big uniforms, soo cute. I'm getting MJ's next week so he is ready for his pretend school day at kinder next month. I still can't quite believe he is heading to school next year (insert deep breath here!).

  4. Lauren Hunt shared this post with me as I am preparing for my son to start school next year. We had orientation at the school yesterday and he got his uniform today - to say he is excited is an understatement! They had some great tips at the orientation session yesterday. This post is great - there is definitely advice that I have not heard before. I have made some notes! My son is pretty ready I think - a few things to work on between now and school starting next year. Thanks for these tips.

    1. Don't you just love their enthusiasm and excitement at becoming big school kids? I'm glad I haven't made an empty claim about 'advice you haven't heard before'. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment :)

  5. I have my eldest starting school next year so this is incredibly timely reading for me (we have just started the orientation sessions!). I LOVE the questions you've come up with. My son tends to go blank when I ask the habitual "How was your day?" question so these will come in really handy.

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