Is My Child Ready? Broadening Conceptions of Back to School Readiness

Image by EB Pilgrim from Pixabay

By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

Most parents awaken to the dawn of summer with the best intentions of continuing their children’s learning during the weeks spent out of the classroom. As May turns to June, we look forward to the weeks ahead with hopeful, idealistic refrains running through our heads: This summer, we are going to read every single day. Each week, we will visit the library. We will work on our children’s writing skills. We will help get them ready for the next school year.

But as the long days of summer roll on, a different reality sets in. Before we know it, the charm of the lazy hazy days of summer has commandeered our plans to maintain or build our children’s academic skills. And then, seemingly suddenly, the ‘back-to-school’ section replaces the ‘summer fun’ toys at the local shopping center. In a panic, you wonder: Is my child ready to go back to school?

Often, parents attempt to fulfill those early summer goals by cramming lessons into the remaining days off. Some try to force the completion of workbook pages; others try to squeeze enough reading in to at least fill a respectable number of slots on the reading log. Far too often, these attempts abruptly change the child’s daily routine and prove to be disheartening for the students and parents alike. In reality, these sporadic efforts rarely prove worthwhile in terms of skill-building. The results can unintentionally decrease morale and, ultimately, hinder a child’s readiness to return to school in the fall.

School Readiness is So Much More Than Academics

School readiness is different than practicing school at home. Readiness is about the mindset to ‘hit the ground running’ once the student walks through the school doors. If used well, the weeks immediately before students return to school can help to move kids in a positive direction in their mindset, routines, and expectations. Parents can use this time as a launching pad for engagement, joy, success, and building the foundation for a successful school year by understanding that readiness is the “off-season conditioning” of the school year. To do this, there are more holistic strategies that can be easily integrated into summer days that will ease the transition into the school year.

Build Social Emotional Learning: Social emotional learning (SEL) is frequently mentioned at school board hearings, PTA meetings, and on Facebook parenting pages. Popular consensus agrees it is important and positive. However, the concept can seem both amorphous to parents and families and daunting to implement in everyday life. But, homes can actually be an ideal setting for this type of learning.

SEL is rooted in creating and maintaining relationships and friendships through managing emotions and making responsible decisions, all of which happen regularly through parent and family interactions. Parents can use playdates during these final days of summer or late night pick-up games to practice and reflect on social emotional skill building that will help set the stage for classroom success. Some tips for building social emotional learning at home:

  • Praise Perseverance: When you see your child working hard to cross the monkey bars or swim across the pool, tell them how you noticed their perseverance. When we provide specific praise for hard work, rather than successes, we encourage the process of trying new things and sticking with challenging tasks.
  • Strengthen Relationships: When you watch your child interact with others, notice how they play. Are they patient? Are they able to work through disagreements? There is tremendous value in helping your child reflect about the interaction later on. You might ask your child how they were feeling at a particular moment of play. If they struggled to resolve something, brainstorm with them what they might try next time. If they showed kindness or creativity, articulate that and ask how they felt when using those special skills. By encouraging kids to reflect on how they play with others, they are able to think more deeply about their friendships and how they can grow their relationships with others.
  • Practice Patience: Summertime can mean on-demand snacking and immediate answers to questions. When your child is in a group setting, it is necessary for them to practice more patience. Help with this transition by encouraging a bit more patience at home. Prompt them to try and solve a problem on their own, and praise their efforts.

Foster Independence: Families can also support the transition into school by helping their child build independence with tasks they do regularly. When a student feels successful with these everyday occurrences, they can focus their energy on academic learning and school routines, setting them up for greater success within the first weeks of school and beyond. Further, the adult to child ratio in a school setting is much larger than in a home setting. Each procedural or functional task that your child can do independently frees up the teacher for additional instructional time. Some tips to foster independence at home:

  • Encourage Self-Advocacy: When your child needs something, encourage them to speak up. It is important to convey to our children that  they can use their voice to articulate their needs in appropriate ways. Once the school year begins, they will not always have an adult nearby, and they will need to seek out help. They might need to ask to use the restroom or to get assistance in opening a juice box or bottle of water. During the last days of summer, invite your child to order their own meal at a restaurant or ask for directions to get to the restroom in an unfamiliar place.
  • Build Self-Reliance: When you watch your child go through their day, notice whether there are particular things that cause frustration or hinder progress. Do they regularly struggle with zippers? Can they open reusable containers (such as those you plan to send for lunch)? If there are points of frustration, practice those with your child or find alternatives. You want to create an environment where they can successfully manage many elements of self-care throughout the school day. For instance, both school staff and your child will appreciate Velcro shoes until they can independently tie their own shoelaces.
  • Practice Good Hygiene: Encourage your child to practice washing their hands, even without your verbal reminder, as they leave the bathroom. While using a drinking fountain, practice keeping a safe distance from the spout. Talk about keeping hats and headphones for personal use, rather than sharing with friends.

You Can Still Practice (Incognito) Academic Skills: And while parents should not worry about how many pages have been completed in a workbook, it is good to help children warm up their academic muscles before returning to school. Activities to spark learning need not feel like traditional homework and can be easily embedded within summer routines. Dressed up as everyday conversations and errands, you can encourage critical thinking activities that will show benefits across mainstream school subjects:

  • Before going shopping, ask your child to make a grocery list with you. Depending on their ability, they might write the first letter, write the whole word, or write out a list and then alphabetize it.
  • Invite them to send out a note or greeting card to a friend or family member.
  • Before going on a vacation, have your child do some research and read about the destination or hotel options.
  • When paying for a purchase, invite your child to help you pay with the appropriate bills and coins. For older kids, have them calculate change.

Transitioning Back to School Life

As the summer days wane, work to establish a more structured schedule. Practice going to and from school, going to the bus stop, or stopping by and playing on the school playground. Low-pressure exposure to these practices and environments will serve to calm first week jitters.

The very best thing you can do to set your child up for success is to approach the new school year as an exciting beginning. Use your conversations and actions to model this mindset with your child. Show excitement as the Back to School aisles appear. Acknowledge the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ sentiments that the countdown to the first day often engenders; but help them to imagine all the things they might learn or do in the next grade. A new school year holds tremendous potential for growth, learning, and new experiences. Embrace with your child the wonderful possibilities of what is to come.

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Erin Gohl

Erin Gohl is a Getting Smart columnist, and an independent writer focusing on issues of equity, engagement, and technology in educational policy and practice

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