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Starting the School Year Right: Maximizing Each Child's Potential
By Shelley Butler

Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world.
--Maria Montessori
 
At school, young children experience miraculous things. They explore their world, learn about who they are, develop new relationships, discover what kind of learner they are, uncover their strengths, and basically, learn and practice new skills in every area of development. All this prepares children to go out into the world with a rich blend of confidence and capability. It’s no wonder then, that the start of the year is a mixed bag of emotions with pressure on everyone to get things started successfully.
 
So, how do you start the year right and free the promise of each child? Parent’s and teachers can:
1. Learn about child development in the early years, then attempt to know where each individual child is in their development.
2. Help a child prepare and be ready for the demands of school.
3. Provide realistic expectations about school and high expectations about potential; avoid promises that you can’t keep.
4. Offer learning activities and reading choices that are fun, and never make learning a chore.
 
Here’s how:
 
As a Teacher:
Learn about child development in the early years, and then attempt to get to know each individual child. Child development research tells us that children develop skills within an age range and in a specific order. There is a wide range of skills related to school readiness, such as being able to sit in one place for periods of time, the ability wait for a turn, raise one's hand and cooperate/share. Some skills may take a long period of time to master, and the range of ages that children typically begin to learn these tasks varies widely.
 
As a Parent:
Help a child prepare and be ready for the demands of school.
 
At home:
• Make sure your child has adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise.
• Help your child learn to separate easily from you. Short babysitting sessions are a good introduction to practicing separation for school.
• Provide situations where your child has the opportunity to get along in groups of children.
• Offer opportunities for your child to play by himself.
• Introduce the concepts of transitioning to quiet time and sitting still.
• Encourage her to use her words when she needs or wants something.
• Visit school before the start to ease his anxiety of the unknown.
• Create a simple getting-ready-for-school ritual (getting dressed, eating breakfast, a special kiss on the hand to hold onto or a magical hug to say goodbye).
• Continue to read aloud to, talk and listen to, play with your child, and offer a variety of experiences that will help your child learn more about herself and the world.
 
For the Teacher:
• Make home visits, if possible.
• Hold an open house prior to the start of school.
• Hold a parent orientation meeting.
• Set up the classroom with well-defined spaces, so you can see every part of the room, so organizing noisier areas are apart from quiet areas, and always with safety in mind.
• Set routines and transition rituals, but allow children plenty of time to learn them.
• On the first day, plan to help each child find his or her cubby and name (wherever it might appear around the room), and show him the well-defined play and reading areas around the room. Introduce children to each another, but avoid overwhelming small children by introducing them to everyone at once.  Recognize that the pace needs to stay unhurried.
• Plan activities that help you and the children learn about each other, such as “Me” posters or self-portraits.
• Get to know each child as an individual with unique likes, dislikes and temperaments.
• Provide opportunities in all areas and for all learning styles that will allow children to explore who they are, what their strengths are, develop into what kind of learner they will be, and most importantly, foster  a love for learning.
Offer enthusiastic but realistic expectations about school and high expectations about a child’s capacity to learn; avoid promises that you can’t keep.
 
Expectations that both parents and teachers can offer children:
• Your school schedule is: [which days of the week and at what time].
• There are many other children your age at your school that you can get to know and with whom you can play. 
• It’s okay to feel excited and a little scared at the same time; lots of children feel that way.
• There are many different kinds of toys to play with and activities to do.
• A routine, including indoor and outdoor playtime, stories, group/circle time, and activities, helps you understand what will happen each day and in what order. After a while at school, you will know what to expect and you will feel more comfortable.
• Your teacher is someone who cares about you and helps you learn and feel good about school.
 
High expectations about potential:
• Starting school is a big event in your life and shows how you are growing up.
• If something at school seems too hard at first or doesn’t work out, you can try again.
• At school, you will be able to do many things for yourself, like find your cubby, hang up your jacket, sit with other children in a circle and listen, and much more. Teachers know this is new to you, and they will patiently teach you and remind you until you learn it yourself.
• You can ask questions about anything about which you are curious.
• You can get along with other children and think about how they feel.
• Learning to take turns and share can be tricky at first, but I know you can do it.
• You are learning the self-control to use words instead of using your hands; using words is the way to express your feelings.

Promises that are beyond an adult’s control to keep:
• School will be fun!
• You will make a friend right away.
• There is nothing to worry or fear about school.
Even the most school-ready child in a well-prepared classroom may have anxiety, worries, and/or difficulties. Telling a child something that later turns out not to be true usually only adds to a child’s anxiety and to the feeling that there is something wrong with him/her.
Many children simply need time and encouragement to feel comfortable enough to make a friend, understand the routine, remember the classroom layout, participate in groups, and ask a teacher for help. Expect that a child will need a few weeks (or even several months) to become oriented to the routines of getting ready for and attending school. 
 
Create a supportive atmosphere where learning is fun and not a chore.
Research shows that children do better in school when their parents support them. Some ways parents can encourage your the child at home to feel good about school include:
• Talk about school and ask specific questions, such as, “What story did you hear today?” instead of the generalized, “How was your day?”
• Notice accomplishments and show pride in the child’s work. Place art on prominent display at home, remark on good effort, admire work, and show grandma and grandpa things brought home from school.
• Speak positively about the child’s teacher and foster a good relationship between you, your child, and the teacher. You are a team!
• Read books to children that show a character overcoming a fear or worry about school, or having fun at school, or describing school. There are classics, such as Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes and Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen. There are also some newer great books to which introduce school and the feelings surrounding the start of school: 
Gaspard and Lisa's Ready for School Words by Anne Gutman and George Hallensleben, Knopf, 2004. A board book with sweet characters who naming things throughout their day.
Augustine by Mélanie Watt, Kids Can Press, 2006. An adorable penguin moves to a new pole, and bravely starts a new school.
 
Studies also show that children who are successful in preschool are more likely to be successful in school later on. Some ways teachers can create a positive, supportive atmosphere at school are:
• Welcome all children regardless of culture, gender and ability.
• Work with children individually and in groups.
• Encourage children to participate, but do not but don’t force children to participate.
• Honor parents as a child’s first teacher and foster good relationships with parents. You are a team!
• Create an atmosphere where children feel safe, where they enjoy themselves, and feel respected.
 
A Chinese proverb says, “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” When you maximize your potential as a teachers or as parents, children naturally,  unknowingly become lifelong learners. So, when you see a child growing more confident, developing new skills, and enjoying learning,  and life, then know that your job as a parent or teacher is being done well.
 

Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of the award-winning book, The Field Guide to Parenting. For more information or to contact the author, please visit her wWeb site: www.fieldguidetoparenting.info

Resources for Teachers to Make a Great Start
Innovations Series:
The Comprehensive Toddler Curriculum by Kay Albrecht and Linda G. Miller, Gryphon House, 2000.
The Comprehensive Preschool Curriculum by Kay Albrecht and Linda G. Miller, Gryphon House, 2004.

Classroom Routines That Really Work for PreK and Kindergarten by Kathleen Hayes and Reneé Creange, Scholastic, ©2001 Bank Street College of Education.

Resources for Parents to Maximize School Success
Helping Your Preschool Child: With Activities for Children from Infancy through Age 5, free from the U.S. Department of Education. Go to: www.ed.gov and click on “publications” to read online or order, or call in your request toll-free: 1-877-433-7827 (1-877-4ED-PUBS).

Great Games for Young Children: Over 100 Games to Develop Self-Confidence, Problem-Solving Skills, and Cooperation by Rae Pica, Gryphon House, 2006.