School 360 Part 1: Parenting Through the Preschool Years

With Preschool Director: Barb Ingram

Please let me introduce you to Barb Ingram, a retired Preschool Director, School Librarian, and one of the wisest women to ever grace the academic world. Barb studied Education, with a concentration in Early Childhood and has graduate level experience in Media Education and Children’s Literature.  Beyond that, she is widely sought for her experience and expertise in the many details of Preschool and all that it entails.

Let’s jump right in!

Barb, How does the way parents approach preschool affect their child?

Children are very attuned to their parents’ feelings and attitudes, and will look to you for cues as to how to approach a new situation. No doubt you’ve carefully chosen your child’s school, so be confident about your choice. Communicate that confidence and positive attitude to your child in warm, genuine, encouraging ways as you talk about school, both in advance of the start of the year and on a daily basis. Also communicate confidence about how they’ll do in the school setting as you imagine together some of the things they might experience there.  If you’re feeling anxious about your child starting school, or about how they’re doing at school after they start, work at consciously relaxing your posture and your facial expression. If you seem worried or uncertain you may unintentionally communicate to your child that there’s something scary about this place, or about separating from mom or dad.  A parent who looks traumatized by the separation is no help to their child. Let their last view of you be one of a cheerful face, even if you dissolve into tears when you turn away from the doorway. (Hey, we get it! Letting go is hard.)  Trust the expertise and kindness of the teachers. They know a thing or two about helping children adjust to the school setting. If your child is wailing as you leave, know that the teacher has lots of tricks up her sleeve to distract your little one and get him or her engaged in an activity.

How can parents help their child adjust to school?

Do your best to send them to school well-rested. They may need more sleep than you realize! Children 1 thru 2 years old (i.e. up to 36 months) need 11-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period (including naps). Children age 3-5 need 10-13 hours (including naps). Children age 6-12 need 9-12 hours. And parents…well, all parents need naps, right?

Do your best to provide nutritious food to fuel their bodies, both for breakfast before school and for any snacks and lunches you provide. Sugars, preservatives, and food dyes are not your friends, and can significantly impact your child’s behavior and ability to learn.  When you and your child arrive at school in the morning, be a model of friendliness and courtesy as you and your child are greeted by staff members. Please don’t pressure your child to “look them in the eye” and “say ‘good morning!’” There’s enough going on in a child’s mind as they arrive at school, anticipating the day and anticipating the separation from the parent. Some may happily say hello; others may not be ready to do that. Please don’t make everyone uncomfortable by stopping in the hallway and badgering a child to “use your manners.” Just be a great example yourself.

Remember that “a quick goodbye is best.” Be positive and confident and brief! When a child is struggling with separating from the parent, a long, drawn-out farewell with multiple starts and stops, repeated kisses and hugs and reassurances, does not ultimately help the child or the teacher. Please be truthful. I’ve heard all of the following untruths: “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.” “I’m not leaving – I’ll be right outside in the car.” “You’re having a candy party today! Go on in – your teacher has candy for you.” “You need to get out of the car now. I can’t stay here holding up the car line or the policeman will put me in jail.” (Seriously??)

Barb, you’re telling us our kids don’t have candy parties?  ;) What should parents say?

Say what’s true: “I’ll come and get you at pick-up time! Have fun!” When it’s time to pick your child up from school, please set aside your phone or excuse yourself from conversation with other parents and be available to focus your attention on your child. Let them see and feel how glad you are to see them, to hear what they have to say, and to take a look at what they have to show you. Some children may be chatty and ready to talk about their day at school; with others it may be like trying to gain access to classified information. It may help if you know their school schedule and can prompt them by asking “What did you do in PE?” or “Tell me about your art project for today.” But children tend to be present-oriented, so what they did 30 minutes ago, or 2 or 3 hours ago, can be hard for them to bring to mind on the spot. You can hope those things will resurface later and you’ll hear something about all those hours spent in school! (Probably at bedtime when you really want them to just stop talking and go to sleep!)

Regarding discipline issues at school…if the teacher reports that there was a behavior problem and a consequence, please maintain perspective. You can thank her for letting you know. You might want to ask if she feels that you should follow up on it at home. For the most part you should be able to let it go as something that was dealt with at school. You don’t want to let an incident that occurred at 9:00 AM and was over by 9:10 color the picture you and your child have of the entire school day. Consequences are most effective and meaningful to a child when they occur close in time with the negative behavior, and this has already taken place. Delayed consequences or adding on of further consequences won’t be necessary or helpful. If you feel it’s important, you may find a time later in the day to discuss in a matter-of-fact way what happened and consider with the child what they can do differently the next time. Please don’t let pick-up time come to be about reporting on behavior: “Were you a good listener today? Did you have any time-outs?” Let it be a happy reunion with your child.

How can parents best process recommendations from the teacher?

When a teacher shares concerns with you about your child, please try to be open and to listen well, rather than becoming defensive. If the teacher’s concerns are serious, know that she has agonized over them and how best to share them with you. She is not and does not claim to be a diagnostician, but her observations are incredibly valuable to you as a parent, because she observes your child for many hours in a classroom setting with peers, something you are not able to do. Recognize that the teacher sees your child in the context not only of this particular class, but in the context of all the children in this age group that she has ever taught. Besides her training in early childhood education, a teacher with, for instance, 5 years experience teaching 4-year-olds, has spent well over 6000 hours with multiple class groups of children that age. She knows the typical developmental range they fall in: how they learn, what their speech and language is like, how they interact socially and emotionally, what large and small motor skills they have. When a child’s behavior patterns fall outside of that typical developmental range in any area, that stands out to the teacher and she observes that child closely. If the teacher recommends that you pursue for your child an evaluation of their vision, or hearing, or speech and language, or motor skills, or other developmental area, please follow up with a professional in a timely manner, just as you would follow up with an x-ray if your pediatrician were concerned that your child had a broken arm. Sometimes parents delay because they fear that there’s “something wrong” or that their child will be “labeled.” In the case of any developmental issues, the earlier the child receives therapeutic intervention, the better it will be for their overall growth and development and learning. As one parent told me, “I discovered that therapeutic intervention was a huge positive bonus of support and expertise for my child that I wasn’t equipped to provide myself. She was able to work on skills in fun ways with the therapist, and she responded very differently to trying things in that setting than she would with me.”

As an example of the benefits of pursuing such support for children, in my professional experience and also in personal experience with 2 grandchildren, I’ve seen remarkable growth in children who have gone through a series of OT (occupational therapy) sessions.  The core strength they gained, along with strengthening of other targeted areas, transformed their confidence, desire, and abilities with regard to drawing and writing (crucial school activities). They had previously avoided those activities, finding them physically taxing and “too hard”. But, as a result of the strength they gained through OT, a whole world of creative expression was unlocked for them and poured forth in artwork and writing, paving the way for great success in school.

Sometimes a teacher may recommend that parents consider giving their child a second year in the same age level class before moving on to the next one. Instead of thinking of this in negative terms such as “repeating a grade” or “being held back,” try to look at it as giving your child an amazing gift. You can give them “the gift of time” to grow and mature and to develop true readiness for what will be expected of students in the next grade level. If this is recommended for your child, please be open to the idea and seriously consider all of the pros and cons. In all my years in early childhood education I’ve never heard a parent say they regretted giving their child that extra year. On the contrary, the unanimous feeling has been, “That was the best decision we ever made for our child.”

What are the most important things parents need to know about these early years of school?

During the preschool years the best thing we can do for children is to help them build an experience base that’s broad and deep. This happens through lots and lots of free, unstructured play, both indoors and outdoors. It takes place during fun, discovery-oriented, hands-on learning activities that are developmentally appropriate (code for designed according to the way kids are wired to learn’). It’s enhanced by reading kids tons of quality children’s books (real ones printed on paper, with pages to turn). The key in early childhood education is not acceleration –- it’s not about how far and how fast we can push children. It’s not a narrow focus on recognizing those squiggly lines we call letters and numbers. The key to education in the early years is richness – the gradual accumulation of layers of experiences as the foundation on which all future learning will best be built. Childhood is a journey, not a race. Young children’s learning is all about growth and readiness...the natural emerging of skills and interests. Kids don’t need to be reading independently at 5 years of age any more than they need to be walking independently at 5 months. Preschoolers don’t need after-school tutoring or organized sports or specialty classes in dance or tennis. They don’t need to spend time glued to electronic devices. In order to develop fully in every area of life children need to play and play. As parents, you have the power to protect their childhood, and the privilege of delighting in it with them.