This article is sponsored by Bright Horizons Child Care & Early Education.
Your child’s first day of school is a bittersweet milestone to see come and go. On one hand, no matter how tough you may be hanging on, they’re just not your baby anymore. On the other, seeing them happy and thriving in a new environment with other kids and supportive caregivers is what parenting is all about: setting them up for success to learn, grow and spread their wings so they can become confident and independent in their lives ahead. But it’s not easy for either of you! There’s so much to consider when taking the plunge and putting your child in their first school setting, and because it’s such a crucial time in their lives, it can feel like a lot of pressure.
According to the experts at Bright Horizons, “The first five years are critical to a child’s lifelong development. Early experiences influence brain development, establishing the neural connections that provide the foundation for language, reasoning, problem-solving, social skills, behavior and emotional intelligence — characteristics that often determine how well a child will do in school and in life.”
Of course, there are external markers for school readiness, such as whether or not your toddler is potty-trained, but so much depends on a parent’s intuition and the balance between your child’s needs and your own. Often, the choice is made more complicated because of situational circumstances such as having to go back to work. If you are lucky enough to choose when your child enters school, there’s a lot you can do to ensure you’re both prepared for this tough but joyful transition. Educators at Bright Horizons recommend approaching school readiness from a holistic perspective, considering emotional development, social competencies and cognitive skills.
Not every child will be a master of every skill listed here, and the truth is you just may not know how ready your child is until you give him the chance to succeed (and wait it out for a few weeks, because like every big life change, it takes some time to get used to). These are general guidelines and questions to ask to help you determine if starting school is the right choice for your child:
Social interaction and play
How well does your child do in group settings? Are they able to share, compromise and respect those around them? Do they play independently at home? Are their interactions with peers mostly positive?
Can your child communicate their needs and wants and share information? Do they comprehend and follow directions? Can they answer basic questions?
Of course, all young children are prone to tantrums, but how quickly does yours recover from them? Do they perceive the emotions of others and are they capable of regulating their own? Are they comfortable being apart from parents? Can they practice patience? Do they express interest in learning? Do they act bored or under-stimulated at home (note: this may present as hyperactivity)?
Physical and fine motor skills
Can your child eat and perform basic tasks such as using the bathroom without much help? Can they pick out toys that catch their interest and put them away when they’re done? Do they do well in high-energy environments and regulate their bodies accordingly? Can they sit still when it’s time to listen?
Early literacy and numeracy
Does your child exhibit broad language and math skills? Do they know the correct way to hold a book? Do they show comprehension of literacy concepts like rhyming and know that letters represent sounds? Can they sort things by shape, size and color? Can they put puzzles together?
If the above list feels a little daunting, don’t fret! There’s a myriad of easy things you can do at home to build and encourage school readiness skills and prepare both your child and yourself for this very big (and equally exciting!) turning point in your lives.
Read at home to foster early literacy skills, focus and attention. Reading together a minimum of 15 minutes per day is the recommendation of The Children’s Reading Foundation.
Take a step back to encourage self-directed play — this will nurture independence and fine motor skills and prepare them to be out from under your constant watch.
Develop language and physical skills by giving your child simple directions to follow, such as asking them to help put away toys or find their shoes before getting ready to leave the house.
Help your child adapt to social settings and learn how to interact appropriately with others by incorporating play dates, time with babysitters and group activities such as gymnastics or dance classes into your routine.
Determine what values are most important to you and find a school space that supports your child so you can feel confident and worry-free in your decision. Consider things like educational philosophy, physical and emotional autonomy, class size and teacher experience.
Give yourself peace of mind by taking the time to research the schools you’re interested in: Take tours and cross-reference the places you like with your state’s child care licensing board to see if they’ve passed inspections.
When the time inevitably comes, communication is key. Talk to your child about school long before and leading up to the time they’re sent to attend. Explain what it will be like, why it’s important for them to go, and all of the fun things they’ll get to do while they’re there.
Kids are surprisingly malleable; chances are, if they feel safe and supported in their new environment away from home, they’ll be just fine. And I promise, so will you.