Preparing your child for kindergarten

At one time, being ready for kindergarten meant knowing your name, address and phone number, being able to print your name, counting up to a certain number, reciting the alphabet in order and even tying your shoes.

These are helpful accomplishments, but in reality they have little to do with “readiness” for learning in a school setting.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and they have all the tools needed to have him ready and eager to learn in an environment away from home, and from a teacher who isn’t also a caregiver. No special kits, flashcards or materials as-seen-on-TV are necessary.

In the everyday life of a family, parents guide children through many milestones that are part of being school-ready. These include:

Self-care: You won’t be with him, so his bodily needs (eating, using the toilet, dressing, wanting to be clean) will be up to him. So take advantage as he shows signs of wanting to “do it myself.” As he tries to be more independent, you can encourage each small step and admire his efforts. A child who can do for himself in a new environment can be less dependent on others – and is freer to focus on taking in and using new concepts.

Communication: Your child will be ready for school when he can tell others what he needs, when he needs help and what he doesn’t understand. Encourage him to use words at home to let you know what he wants and how he feels. Help him put into words how he feels when he looks sad or acts angry.

When he is curious about his world and asks questions, try to take the time to answer him simply. His “Why?” and “What’s a …?” curiosity will make him an eager learner at school. The ability to communicate at school will keep the learning tasks focused. It will help him avoid getting sidetracked with interfering behaviors of acting out or shutting down from the frustration of not understanding or not being understood.

Being part of a group: Being able to play comfortably with others his age will help greatly when he is at school. As you observe your child playing with others, watch for his ability to wait for a turn and share materials. If he has difficulty with this, help him see how the fun he’d been having was spoiled because he made his playmate feel bad by grabbing, pushing in front or not sharing.

Help him want to be liked and to see his role in whether things go well and if he and his friends are having fun. When he can use more inner controls to behave in a friendly way – rather than always needing outer discipline – he will feel good about himself and have more positive energy for learning and making good relationships.

“Missing” feelings: It’s normal to miss Dad, Mom and home, but these feelings do not need to overwhelm your child. Point out to him all of the things he can do already because he worked hard and practiced. Tell him how proud you are of all the ways he shows you that he is growing up. Let him know that you will be missing him, too; that his school is a place you know about and like. Hopefully, you and he will be able to visit the school, his room and teacher before the first day. If he has seen his room and met his teacher with you, it serves to put your “stamp of approval” on it and he can feel that he is “safe.”

If you do visit his room, you can point out some of the activities he is already familiar with, such as the blocks, puzzles and some of the art materials. Remembering doing some of them at home with you will help him be able to do things at school when you’re not with him.

There may be set-backs. He may have been in other programs where there were extended separations, but this is different and it may bring up those “missing” feelings again. At home, be prepared to listen and give your child the opportunity to express the worries and frustrations he may have.

Admire the way he could tell you and let you help with his feelings. Let him know you have missed him, too, but feel so proud of all the good growing up he’s shown he can do. The more confidence you have in him, the more confident he can be.

Image courtesy of Photostock/FreeDitigalPhotos.net

Quietly observing the Winter Honeymoon

For the under-5 set and their families, getting used to the academic calendar comes with growing pains. Just the concept of an academic year “ending” has undone many a young child who thought school would go on forever with this teacher in this room.

From the perspective of young children, summer becomes a time of missing what we used to have, and worrying about what comes next. August is anxious as we ready for new things in September.

September is a time of newness, separation and adjustment. There is a tiny window in October when the routine has been mastered and teachers feel familiar. Then comes Halloween – which absorbs a good five weeks between anticipation, doing or avoiding, and debriefing.

Then, we’re in the midst of the winter holidays, which pretty much disrupt all mastered things. Throw in the long winter break (let’s admit that it does feel too long in many young families), an optional polar vortex and Martin Luther King day, and January is a long, drawn-out return to routine. For the under-5 child, that actually feels like a new routine because four months is such a statistically significant percentage of his or her lifespan.

So somewhere in late January or early February, the sweet spot begins – the Winter Honeymoon. It’s one of those hidden gems that most adults don’t notice.

Routines feel familiar. The only major holiday that causes disruption – Valentine’s Day – celebrates friendship, kindness and shapes. Spring break is far enough away that we’re actually living in the moment.

This is the tiny window of time each year that has fewer excitements and dramatic changes. Young children make developmental leaps because the world around them has become a little quieter.

Teachers know this; you can tell because this is when they roll out favorite stations and projects – confident they can rely on the continuity of the season. This is that moment. No major changes on the immediate horizon. Excitements lulled. It’s a special time.

As a parent, how do you use this time?

Soak it up. Share with your child how nice it feels to have the calm of routine; how good it must feel to know where everything is in her classroom; how comfortable she now seems with her teacher.

Savor the mastery. Notice out loud all the things your child can do that were new, intimidating or unfamiliar in September. Stand by and admire how your child needs you a little bit less than when school started. The act of standing by and admiring mastery is a critical part of parenting – a job and also a pleasure.

Look at your little one hanging his coat on his hook, knowing where to find supplies when he wants to draw you a picture, getting started at a favorite place in the classroom where he previously stayed close to you.

Enjoy the trust. Take pleasure in the relationship with your child’s teacher. Once new to your family, this person is now a safe and trusted grown-up, the template for your child’s future learning and personal relationships. Enjoying a trusting relationship is something that you get to teach your child too. It is enriching for you and your child together.

Notice the special (not always perfect, but special) connections you have, and show your child that you value and are grateful for the three-way partnership of parent-child-teacher. This step is important; in just a few more months, the cycle of changing teachers will begin again. Having a memory of this good feeling will help everyone in the transition.

Take a deep breath. This is just for you. Notice how time has been moving fast or slow for you and your family. Breathe in the feeling of being in the moment. Keep life simple; don’t overfill your time just because the holiday craziness is over and you got used to massive to-do lists. Do the comforting things that make you feel grateful and refreshed – even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Find satisfaction in simple things; as with our kids, this the sweet spot where creativity and growth take seed.

Notice how good this can feel. Time moves fast. Raising children is taxing, and the stress-to-reward ratio often feels like it’s not in the caregiving parent’s favor. Noticing the good feelings helps to buoy us through the tough patches.

Is your child excited to return to school to see a friend? Does your child enjoy giving you art from school and look forward to you putting it on display at home? Is your child trying new things every once in awhile? Is something, anything, going easier than it was in September?

See these gems and hold them in your mind as best you can. They are your anchor for the many strenuous parenting moments, April through January. You get to keep this calm and confident time in your back pocket as an amulet for all the other taxing, crazy and extraordinarily special months of the year.

Image courtesy of freeimages.com/Iain Nisbet

Shopping for preschool: 19 things your child needs to learn

When you begin to look at preschools for your children, it’s easy to be wowed by some of the exciting things many of them will offer to compete for your business, such as big muscle rooms, regular field trips, strenuous academic curricula, and name-brand extracurricular activities taught by outside instructors.

This splendid collection of  activities raises a question: How can parents figure out the best pre-school environment for their child?

It helps to think for a minute about who children are at this age and stage; then it becomes much easier to figure out an environment that matches their development level and abilities.

Two- to 5-year-olds are evolving people – not totally developed. Their personalities and sense of the world are still getting organized.

That’s what we mean when we talk about developmental stages: Children are continually organizing and reorganizing as their abilities evolve for moving around in – and understanding – the world. So we are looking for an environment that promotes this process of organization, that encourages children to feel safe in the world, in charge of themselves, and zestful about new experiences and learning.

What this means is that some of the best preschools may be the least exciting to visit. Or more accurately – they won’t be overexciting.

They tend to be quiet places that emphasize a daily routine. That allows children to know what’s going to be happening and to predict their experience. Such an environment helps them to learn about the world and themselves in a way that encourages mastery.

Activities are designed to stimulate, not over-stimulate.  At this age children don’t need so much outside stimulation; they need to process experience in little bites rather than bug gulps. Otherwise they get overwhelmed, which gets in the way of their feeling safe and organized inside.

In other words, the purpose of preschool is to help a child become a learner – someone invested in learning, with the skills to be able to learn, and who enjoys mastery and work.

Or still another way: It isn’t a matter of how much a child knows, as gratifying as that might be; It is a matter of how the child learns and how he or she feels about learning. By becoming learners in these early years, children will have the skills they need to succeed in any academic environment in the future.

Here are 19 specific tasks that are prerequisites to becoming a learner. Mastering them requires a gradual process that evolves from the ages of 2½ to 5.

Once mastered, these tasks will allow a child to learn anything when the time is right. But if a child hasn’t succeeded in mastering these tasks by early elementary school (more or less), he or she will be compromised in learning, which can interfere with their future educational investment and success.

Mastery Tasks for Becoming a Learner

Listed below are 19 specific tasks children need to master in order to become learners. A strong preschool curriculum is organized to help children attain these skills:

  1. Be able to take care of the self – their bodies and their things – in an appropriate way.
  2. Be able to separate from their parents/caregivers in such a way that they maintain energy, zest, interest and spectrum of affect in the new environment.
  3. Be able to see the teacher as a teacher, not just a substitute caregiver. Be able to trust so they can later learn from different people.
  4. Be able to use language for communication; be able to ask questions.
  5. Be able to listen and hear communications; be able to hear answers to questions.
  6. Be able to take in and express (a corollary to No. 5).
  7. Be able to sit still and be in their own space.
  8. Be able to delay gratification (i.e. wait).
  9. Be able to tolerate frustration; try, try again!
  10. Be able to relate to peers as people, rather than as conveniences or inconveniences.
  11. Be able to function in a group while maintaining autonomy and without feeling lost.
  12. Be able to make transitions.
  13. Be able to follow directions.
  14. Be able to risk.
  15. Be able to be wrong.
  16. Be able to have pleasure in learning and mastery.
  17. Be able to be curious in a neutral and productive way.
  18. Be able to assert themselves in socially acceptable ways.
  19. Be able to remain neutral in the classroom – that is, be a schoolboy or schoolgirl.

As adults and parents – because we can’t remember routine events from our own toddler years – it’s easy to forget that these skills are neither intuitive nor self-learned. They need to be taught and reinforced through patience, understanding, kindness and quiet dedication.

When evaluating preschools, this is what I recommend parents seek.

Image courtesy of  David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Why we care so much about maple syrup

One of many skills that young children begin to develop as they go through preschool and kindergarten is tolerance for delayed gratification. They practice patience.

That may be the most immediate lesson offered by an unassuming sapling planted recently on the front lawn at Hanna Perkins School.

But some day, probably at about the time this year’s kindergarteners are stressing over college applications, the new sugar maple will become a teaching tree – revisiting a Hanna Perkins tradition of collecting sap to produce maple syrup.

The practice took root in 1991, when the school was located at its old location in University Circle. That was the year Dr. Robert Furman retired from his longtime role as director of the school, and to mark the occasion he donated a sugar maple from family property in Geauga County. It was replanted on the school playground.

By February 1998 it had grown large enough to tap, and Dr. Furman – still visiting classes weekly as Director Emeritus – led the kindergarten students in tapping the tree and hanging a bucket to collect its sap.

Tapping – and learning about tapping

  • Tapping is done in late winter, when days are above freezing and nights are below freezing.
  • The activity teaches students the source for real maple syrup. They learn that the tree has sap, which contains sugar. They may be able to comprehend that trees store this sugar for their own food, and that trees have a way of transporting the sap.
  • Through tapping the maple, children are supported in observing and inquiring about their natural environment.
  • In kindergarten, they are ready to learn about the natural history of maple sugaring, which integrates science and social studies.

– Laura Cyrocki
Director of Healthy Meals & Garden Programs
The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development

Preschool children watched the action through their classroom windows – knowing they would get a closer look later, when it was their turn to go outside to play. Some would stick their fingers under the tap to taste the sap as it oozed from the tree – learning, perhaps, that sap isn’t the same as syrup.

“It was as though the children couldn’t wait to get to kindergarten to have the actual experience,” recalls Karen Goulandris, who was a Hanna Perkins teacher at the time.

Children in the toddler groups also noticed something special was happening, and would go with their teachers during scheduled outdoor time to investigate.

Mrs. Erna Furman – Dr. Furman’s wife, herself a noted child psychoanalyst who was deeply involved the school – taught the teachers how to boil the sap, and consulted with them when things got sticky.

“We didn’t get a lot of sap,” Goulandris says. “One time we over-cooked it – and ended up with some delicious maple candy. Other times, we might end up with just enough syrup so every child could have a taste. One time we got enough to enjoy it with pancakes for lunch.”

Hanna Perkins opened at its current location in 2003 – just months after Erna and then Robert Furman died. In their memory, another maple tree was moved from their rural property to the new Hanna Perkins school.

It was planted in the preschool playground, in a hole that had been prepared by some of the kindergarten students. Only now is it growing large enough to tap.

In the intervening years, Dr. Lydia Furman – daughter of the Furmans and a Hanna Perkins trustee – has continued to provide sap to boil.

“Hanna Perkins School has always incorporated some sort of gardening and learning about nature into its curriculum,” offers Goulandris, who is now Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education and Teacher Education at Cuyahoga Community College. “Best practice in early childhood education is based in theory that supports the benefits of helping children understand themselves through the natural world.  Hanna Perkins has been the model of such best practices since its inception.”

In 2012, when Goulandris left Hanna Perkins to embark on the next phase of her career, members of the small staff took up a collection for a gift in her honor: a new sugar maple tree that would some day be accessible to the kindergarten class. “I think it was hard for the kindergarten children to take ownership of the tree when it was on the preschool playground,” Goulandris says, “so I thought that having one in their own space would help with ownership and investment in the process.” 

Sugar maples are native to Northeast Ohio, but they aren’t readily available for purchase.

“The market wants fast-growing trees like red maples and silver maples,” said Mark Derrickson, owner of Ardmore Tree Service. “They all have sap and can be tapped. Sugar maples grow slow, but they have the high sugar content that makes for the best maple syrup.”

Ardmore Tree Service located a sapling, transported and planted it – and in the end donated a portion of the cost, which is about twice that of faster growing varieties.

The tree is located on Hanna Perkins’ front lawn – not far from where a mature oak was brought down by a severe storm in 2012. It is being watered daily in a shared effort by members of the Hanna Perkins administration and staff. Its trunk needs to reach a diameter of 10-12 inches before being tapped. By any estimate, that will take at least a decade.

Until then, in early spring, the school will boil sap donated from other sources.

And everybody will practice patience.

 

Analytic journal publishes article by school director

An article by Hanna Perkins’ Barbara Streeter, on the history and impact of the psychoanalytic school, has been published in the latest edition of The American Psychoanalyst, the quarterly magazine of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Streeter is School Director of The Hanna Perkins School, and she chairs the faculty of the Hanna Perkins Center Training Program in Child Psychoanalysis.

In the brief article, Streeter uses non-technical language to highlight how Hanna Perkins and the nation’s other psychoanalytic schools were founded. In specific examples from daily life at the school, she also provides insight how Hanna Perkins helps children to constructively address the typical issues that arise in children at the developmental stage in which they begin going to school.

The article is available in the PDF version of The American Psychoanalyst, beginning on Page 22.

Cabin fever: 2-way feelings about winter

Cabin fever: How do you manage your kids’ needs when school is canceled or the weather isn’t conducive to being outside?

A lot of parents use snow days to have some cozy time with fewer rules – stay in pajamas, watch DVDs, lose track of meal times.

Other families – especially those with younger children – find their kids need the structure even when it’s not provided by the outside world. In that case, parents need to use the clock to pattern the day similarly to weekday routines.

Neither solution is right or wrong; do what’s right for your child.

To help keep your long winter days moving, think about your home as a classroom with stations; rotate through activities the way teachers do. And don’t forget how satisfying it can be to cook or bake. It warms up your house, paces a large chunk of time and everyone gets a treat afterwards.

When working with small children, the prep work for a baking project is just as important as the actual mixing-bowl moment. And it becomes an activity, in itself.

Helping school-age children overcome procrastination

Your child has a history project due in two weeks, but he hasn’t even started. You’ve seen this behavior before — procrastination.

As is true of all childhood troubles, procrastination can have many causes. But this time, your son gives you an important clue about what’s going on:  “I can’t do that assignment.  It’s too hard!”

Often, procrastination is due to anxiety. Somehow that project feels way too big. And starting it, even thinking about it, leads to tremendous anxiety.  So, he shoves it aside and tends to less daunting tasks – or maybe even no schoolwork at all, because it will remind him of the history project.

How can you be a helpful parent and assist him? Teach him how to break the BIG history assignment down into bearable bits.

“Come on, Nathan. I’m going to help you. We’re going to make this job manageable. Let’s start by making a list of what needs to be done and then putting them in order. First, do this, then this, then this.”

Once you have the list, suggest he do a little each night. On nights when he doesn’t have much schoolwork offer: “Let’s see if you can do a couple items on your list tonight.” And if he starts getting frustrated?  “Nathan, I can see you’re getting frustrated. When you start feeling really frustrated, you know it’s time to take a break. So stop what you’re doing and get yourself a glass of water. Stretch your legs for awhile. Then you’ll feel better.”

By taking this approach, you’re teaching your child valuable organizational lessons. Remember, your role is supportive.  So don’t take over the job, as that will play right into your child’s “can’t do” thinking.

And be sure to stand back and admire the finished product. “Good job, Nathan!  I’m so proud of you and I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

More Parenting Tips available at www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net