Navigating Preschool To Kindergarten Transitions

This Q&A was originally published in 2016 in advance of a lecture by early childhood development expert Carol Kinlan at The Fessenden School in West Newton.

The transition from preschool to kindergarten is a big deal...elementary schools are bigger, there are more kids, the teacher/student ratio is subsequently very different, and the routines are, well, firmer and less cuddly! If you’ve been feeling nervous about this transition, Carol Kinlan offers wisdom regarding the preschool to kindergarten transition in this Q&A:

1. I would love for you to start by sharing some thoughts about academic vs. social/emotional readiness. When my now 14-year-old started kindergarten, she was among the youngest in her class. And while she didn’t struggle at all with the school work, she did with the social/emotional piece. I’m curious about whether you’ve found this to be a common mismatch, and whether it goes the other way too (i.e., are kids who are older in their class fine socially/emotionally but bored academically)? Or do most kids run somewhere along the middle?

Particularly when kids are young, the span of a few months can matter when it comes to social/emotional readiness. I think older children tend to feel more confident simply because those extra months of living their life allows them to develop better social and early academic skills. I seldom see pre-K or kindergarten children who are bored if the environment is stimulating -- even those who are amongst the oldest in the class. Most are still learning how to negotiate friendships, and learning basic schools skills. Another factor that sometimes contributes to a child’s readiness is having older siblings. You will sometimes see these children gravitate to the students who appear more mature or self-confident, even if there is an age difference.

2. Obviously date of birth is a classic, easily quantifiable benchmark for school enrollment. But what are some other key things to keep an eye out for in terms of readiness?

Signs for readiness include self-regulation (i.e., children's ability to regulate emotions, thinking and behavior, and control impulses), intact communications skills (understanding what is being said and having others understand what you say), ability to make friends, and of course the ability to separate easily from parents each day.

3. If you’re feeling concerned that your child isn’t showing signs for readiness as you’ve indicated above -- for example, they have trouble sitting still for long periods of time, struggle with directions, have major separation anxiety -- what do you recommend?

I would recommend enrolling a younger child in a one-hour music, gym, or play class designed for very young children, so they become used to being with other children. They would, of course, attend these classes with an adult. Having children over to your home is helpful, too.

4. What are your top tips to help sensitive kids through challenging preschool/kindergarten transitions?

First, know that highly sensitive children need more lead time for new experiences, so be prepared to build in that extra time as you plan for the transition. Second, it is important to have a meeting before school starts to let the child's teacher know your concerns about your child and how best to support him/her in the classroom. Some children are shy; some are very reactive to too much stimulation, etc. Overall, it can indeed be challenging and disheartening for a parent to have a child who does not easily or happily leave each day for school because of their sensitivity or adaptability to a formal classroom setting; you’ll feel better if you and your child’s teacher can work together as a team.

5. What are a couple of the best things I can do to support my child during school transitions?

First, as mentioned earlier, parents might start before kindergarten with programs that allow the child to become accustomed to being around others. Second, another great way to help your child with the transition is to encourage short, supervised playdates when the child is younger. And third, lay some groundwork! Visit the school with your child in the summer, call up a child who will be attending the school in the fall and arrange a playdate, allow the child to discuss any fears or concerns he/she might have, and talk about your first day of kindergarten.

6. Finally, what are your thoughts on twins (or other multiples) re: keeping them together or apart when they start school?

There is strong research that supports keeping twins together in their earlier school years. Separating them in kindergarten can be traumatic for some twins and, if there’s no compelling reason to separate them, in most cases it is probably better to keep them together for their initial school years. Research aside, relying on your parental instincts is probably the best way to make this decision.

Tips for how to navigate the jump from preschool to kindergarten.

Tips for how to navigate the jump from preschool to kindergarten.