Providing a Foundation for Academic Success in Preschool Friendly Ways

Back to school

I am firmly in the learning through play camp when it comes to preschoolers and early academics. Done in a good way, this doesn’t mean just let them play and they’ll be ready. It means thoughtfully providing academic experiences in fun, engaging and play based ways.

Early Literacy Skills to Keep in Mind – Early literacy is focused on the experiences we can provide children to later become successful readers.

Vocabulary – There are so many ways to build a young child’s vocabulary; read aloud everyday, talk about all the things they are seeing and doing, take them on outings and highlight the new vocabulary of that place and aim to teach one new word in context every few days.

Print Motivation – This is a child’s interest in and awareness of books. Motivation can be encouraged by having books available on every level of the house and in the car, and using reading as a reward (“You can stay up late if you are reading”). You might also offer extended learning activities, if you read Blueberries for Sal then make blueberry muffins. Attending library and bookstore activities with read alouds and checking out library books also build motivation.

Print Awareness – This is the child’s understanding about how books go cover to cover, and the words go top to bottom and left to right. It is a gradual understanding of word spacing and later sentence structure. This comes from a child’s shared and independent experiences with books. Reading aloud everyday and occasionally following along with your finger is a good ways to call attention to the print. Pointing out words that match pictures in books may help. Listening and looking at books on tape together is beneficial.

Narrative Skills – Narrative skills include being able to retell a story, understand the order and be able to eventually sequence events. Answering questions about what’s been read and recalling specific details of a story is a good place to start. Occasionally discussing what happened at the beginning, middle and end of a story is helpful. Calling grandma each Monday and retelling a story about something that happened over the weekend is a good way to practice this.

Letter Knowledge – This is the child learning the shapes, names and sounds of each of the letters. It’s tempting here to go more old school academic with flashcards and worksheets, I’d still err on the side of play. Have a letter of the week and collect small objects in the house that start with that sound. Go on letter hunts in the grocery store to find as many individual letters as you can and cross them off a list, have a B shopping trip to buy bagels and butter, blueberries and beans and go home to a B lunch. Paint and sculpt the letters. Play matching games, memory and go fish with the letters.

Phonics – This is being able to put the individual sounds together to make words, pull individual sounds out of words, recognize beginning, ending and eventually middle sounds of words and later learn the common patterns of sound blends. It is helpful to play rhyming games, have listening challenges and sing nursery rhymes. It can be helpful to read aloud books that have basic rhyming patterns such as Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose books.

READ ALOUD EVERYDAY – The Department of Education cites reading aloud as the most important activity to build the knowledge and interest for children to become successful readers. There are many ways to enjoy reading aloud with young children and with children as they get older. The main idea is to start on day one and continue to build the love of books and reading together as long as they will listen. For younger children just enjoying books together, looking at and talking about the pictures, making up stories, finding details in pictures all count as time with books. For older children you might alternate who reads, read their homework aloud or read separately and have book club talks.

Early Math Language to Keep in Mind – There are four areas of math language that can be built in to all the play and activities you are doing in the regular flow of the day. This language builds the foundation for understanding basic math concepts.

Numbers and Counting – Count napkins when you set the table and apples as you put them in the bag at the grocery store. Count often and challenge children to gradually count larger groups of things. Estimation language is a piece of this. Once children are versed at basic counting, estimating how many cookies in a jar or marbles in a bag helps with later math skills.

Position – Position language includes in, on, over, under, near, far, above, below, next to, in front of and behind. You might hide toys and give clues to finding them using this language. You might build an obstacle course and narrate or have people narrate themselves moving through. You might play Simon Says or Follow the Leader using this language.

Measurement – Measurement language is talking about how big or small, short or tall, heavy or light things are. For younger children this might be sequencing big, bigger, biggest. For older children this might be measuring things in inches or feet and then comparing.

Amount – Amount includes some, more, a little, a lot, more than and less than language. This also includes actual amounts like a quarter cup, half cup and whole cup. Baking and cooking activities are an easy way to build in actual amount.

Motor Skills to Keep in Mind – There are many fine motor and gross motor skills that are important for later academics, particularly for handwriting which is important across academic areas.

Pincer grasp and in-hand manipulation are important for eventual pencil grip and pencil pressure. Pincer grasp is practiced by putting pennies in a bank, using tweezers to move cotton balls and putting together puzzles with gradually smaller pieces. In-hand manipulation is practiced playing with small manipulatives including duplos and legos, bristle blocks, Lincoln logs and tinker toys.

Bilateral integration is important for eventual coordination for handwriting. Bilateral integration is using both sides of your body and in this case both hands in a coordinated way. For using your whole body this includes crawling, skipping, and swimming. For your hands this includes most craft activities such as lacing and sewing cards, weaving looms and latch-hook rugs. Midline activities and crossing midline activities include songs with clapping and simple motions like The Wheels on the Bus and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This also includes popping bubbles and throwing or rolling and catching balls on one side of your body and the other.

Offer a wide range of art supplies – There is a different pencil grip and pressure to using thick and thin markers, different crayons, pens, pencils, dot art, roller art and pebble and ball crayons. The wider range of experience the better. Once they are comfortable provide a wide range of writing activities. This includes scratch paper, invisible books, dot to dots and mazes.

Offer in range of postures – Think of the different postures for art and writing at a table versus on the floor, or in a bean bag versus at an easel, or laying on your back with paper taped to the underside of a table. All of this benefits handwriting.

Ways to Encourage Listening and Following Directions

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So much of parents’ frustration stems from children not listening or following directions. Like any other social skill, this is something that can be encouraged and taught.

  • Model – When you are in conversation with your children, or when they are asking you questions, it’s helpful to really listen. This may be putting down your book or your phone. This may be giving more eye contact and providing more conversation back. Really listen yourself.
  • Have their attention first – Before you speak, it is helpful to have their attention first. This might be saying their name, touching their arm, getting on their level, or making eye contact. Like, how teachers might flick the lights or ring a bell.
  • Engage and reflectively listen – This is active listening. In conversation, it’s reflecting back the things you hear. “Wow, that must have hurt your feelings.” It’s occasionally summarizing or checking in for understanding. “You really got it,” or, “that seems like it would be confusing. Were you confused?” It might be just adding words for punctuation, “horrible!” This may also be asking for more detail or asking a question to encourage them to continue. All of this requires that you keep up.
  • Encourage real conversation – So often, we spend our time telling children where to go and what to do. We tend to be really boring. If you want kids to listen more, you might need to vary your conversation and talk about more interesting things. You might engage them in conversation about their favorite activities. You might ask about their friendships or collections. You might open conversations to bigger topics like politics and religion (in age appropriate, non-lecturing, ways).
  • Provide an answer either way – When children ask a question or make a comment, it is good to give a response as best you can.
  • Read aloud everyday – Listening to stories encourages children to listen in general. You might occasionally ask them about the stories they hear. You might encourage them to tell their own stories or consider if a character had made a different decision. Books on tape, CDs and Audibles all count to build listening skills.
  • Avoid repeating yourself – When you are asking your child to do something, avoid repeating yourself. The idea is the more you repeat, “put on your shoes,” you are teaching them to tune you out. Here is a blog post about how to not repeat yourself.
  • Give positive directions – This is saying, “walking feet,” or, “slow down,” rather than, “no running,” or, “don’t run.” This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.” Here is a blog post about positive directions.
  • Give a direction with just a word or two – When you can, this might be, “bed,” or, “sit here,” or, “quiet.”
  • Give a visual cue with the direction – This can be as simple as a point in the right direction, or as much as drawing them a picture of the thing you are asking them to do. This can add emphasis to the direction or give a visual reminder when you draw a picture.
  • Cook, bake, make craft kits or model cars together – Highlight the importance in each of following the directions. Helpful to have a written list, discuss it before and check directions off as you go.
  • Read about it
    • Listen and Learn by Meiners
    • Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen by Binkow
    • Listen Buddy by Lester
    • Lacey Walker Non-Stop Talker
    • Worst Day of My Life Ever by Cook
  • Play listening games
    • What Animal? What Sport? – You pick one, and they ask questions to figure it out.
    • 20 Questions – You pick a person, place or thing, and they ask yes/no questions to figure it out.
    • Simon Says – You give lots of directions starting with “Simon says…,” that they follow. You surprise them with a direction that leaves out the “Simon says…,” and they should really listen and not follow it.
    • Freeze Dance – Music plays, and when you turn it off, they freeze like a statue.
    • Animal Dance – Music plays, and you call out what animal to move like.
    • Robot – You are the programmer, and they are the robot. You give one specific direction at a time to move them through an activity.
    • Crazy Directions – At the playground, you might say to a 4 year old, “run to the bridge, jump across the bridge, touch the red tricycle and crawl back.” You can repeat this and then say “ready, go!” and see if they can keep it in working order. If not, prompt them along, and you might try fewer directions the next time. If they can, maybe give an additional direction the next time.
  • Play listening board games
    • “Hullabaloo” by Cranium (audio not DVD version)
    • “Guess Who?” by Hasbro
    • “Noodleboro Pizza Palace Listening game”
    • “Mystery Garden” by Ravensburger
    • “Look Who’s Listening” board game
    • “6 Speaking and Listening Board Games”
    • For any board game, you might read the directions (at least the highlights) together before you play.  Refer back to them as needed while you play, and talk about the importance of following the directions.

When a Child has to be FIRST or be BEST at Everything

Little brother and sister running

It’s fairly common for children to go through a phase of needing to be first or best at everything. This might be first to get out of the car, or first to touch the front door. It might be best at running fast or writing letters. This push varies widely with some way more than others, and boys often more than girls. It tends to start around four years old and hopefully subsides for most by seven or eight.

As difficult as this phase can be, it is at least partly stemming from a good place. As children grow they are gradually developing a sense of self. For two year olds, the focus is ‘who am I in this family?’ For three and four year olds, it is ‘what am I good at, what do I like?’ For four and five year olds, it’s ‘how do I rank with those around me?’ When you have a bunch of five year olds moving through a phase of ranking themselves against each other, there is bound to be some competition.

A child’s self esteem has its foundation partially in a growing sense of competence. As children learn new skills and rise to face new challenges, the outcome is a bolstered sense of self. Children often feel proud of their new skills, as they should. This pride and the language that comes with it may also increase the comparisons.

What to Do 

Start with empathy often – When children are emotional, empathy is so often the best place to start. For this, it might be “I know you are frustrated. You really wanted to be first.” This is before any coaching, limit or discipline.

Refocus on effort, fun or friendship – You might comment on how hard they are working, how much fun the game was or how they are making so many new friends.

Refocus on individual skill building and practice – If they are frustrated from being third, you might follow empathy with, “I know you like to run fast. We can practice running in the backyard.”

Avoid pointing out they are better than others – This would be saying, “I know you lost to John, but you were faster than Eric.” This heightens the focus on competition.

Avoid pointing out other strengths – This might be, “you may not be as fast as him, but you draw really well.” This is just agreeing your child is slow, and, again, it’s competitive.

Solve it – Especially between siblings, in the long run you might want to make a rule with the goal of ending the debate. Some families do odd and even days, on odd days one child goes first at everything and makes all the decisions on even days the other. Some families have bracelet days, meaning whoever is wearing the bracelet is first and makes decisions, and the bracelet is passed daily.

Highlight practice – It is good for children to realize that practice and effort are the ways to get better at just about everything. The more they practice at or learn about something the better they will be and more confident they will feel.

Give cooperative challenges – Over time it can be helpful to give cooperative challenges. Between siblings better to say, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed before me,” so they are working together. Rather than saying, “let’s see who can get dressed first,” so they are hating each other while they get dressed. If it’s a rush to touch the door first, it is stopping them and, instead, challenging them to touch the door with their noses at the same second. There are a few books for cooperative effort ideas: Everybody Wins: 150 Non-Competitive Games for Kids by MacGregor and Everybody Wins: 393 Non-Competitive Games for Young Children by Sobel.

Focus good sportsmanship – Rather than focusing on winning and being first, focus your parenting language on being a good sport, a team player. It may be helpful to suggest language each time and help them to be a good sport for a while.

Encourage them to cheer for others, be happy for others – Being a good sport includes handling loosing in a good way. This is as small as managing when they don’t touch the front door first when running from the car. This may take lots of review. It’s saying things like “good job,” or, “wow, you were fast,” to the other child. It might be easiest to introduce this when they aren’t involved in the competition. An example of this would be cheering as a spectator at their siblings soccer game.

Encourage being nice when they are first too – Being a good sport equally includes winning well. Kids who are pressed to be first may go overboard when they beat others. This can be as little as giving a high five or saying “that was fun!”

Focus on teamwork rather than individual – It may be helpful to focus your parenting language on teamwork, cooperation and the benefits of working together. This may include referring to your family as a team. You might point out one way each day that various family members are helping or cooperating with each other. With other children, it may be helpful to remind them they are friends and to think about at least one thing they like about the other.

Teach children to compete with their own personal best – If it’s running, point out that they are faster or they ran farther than they did before. Again, helpful to focus on their effort, progress and practice.

Start teaching to win and lose at games and sports – Being comfortable with winning and losing at games and sports can carry over towards this push to be the first or the best. Here is a post about learning to manage that competition.

Competition: Teaching Kids to be Gracious Winners and Good Sport Losers

Children having a sack race in park

I will start here by saying; I want my kids to be competitive. I want them to work hard, play fair, enjoy the process, celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. This goes for their academics and their athletics.

Teach cooperation first – As children grow, having a cooperative nature helps to curb the ugly side of competition. Between siblings you can give cooperative challenges such as, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed to beat the timer,” rather than, “let’s see who can get dressed first.” You might plan cooperative projects more often like washing the car together or building an obstacle course together. You can talk about your family as a “team,” or as needing to help each other out as often as possible. Highlight when children are being helpful or cooperating with others.

Introduce games with cooperative effort – There are lots of cooperative effort board games including Snail’s Pace Race (or Caterpillar Crawl, same game), Colorama, Race to the Treasure, Hoot Owl Hoot, Stone Soup, and Feed the Woozle. Cooperative effort games teach the turn taking, rule following and fun aspects of board games without the competitive component. Candy Land can be cooperative (and much shorter) if everyone is working together to move the blue guy to the end. As children get older, there’s Pandemic, Space Alert, Harvest Time and many other cooperative games.

Introduce winning and losing in small ways – By three-and-a-half or four years old, you might introduce small games with winners and losers. This includes tic-tac-toe, rock-paper-scissors and Hulabaloo which each take less than a minute or two to win or lose.

Talk through winning and losing – As you play these games, occasionally talk about what it feels like to win and what it feels like to lose. Brainstorm gracious things they can say or do when they win and good sport things they can say or do when they lose. Avoid letting your child always win, to learn how to be a good sport loser they have to have experiences with losing.

  • When your child wins, teach them to shake hands or smile and compliment the other players. This can be as simple as saying, “good game.” Directly curb boasting or any dig at the other players.
  • When your child loses, teach him to shake hands or smile and congratulate the other players. Work towards curbing tantrums and visible or loud upsets. It can be most effective to work on this out of the moment thru role play, puppet shows, drawing pictures and asking hypotheticals. There are free workshop on teaching social skills at http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/ .

Gradually play longer games – By four or five years old, move to games like Zingo, Go Fish and Uno that take a few minutes to win or lose. Then move to longer board games, such as Chutes and Ladders or Trouble. All along model, practice and discuss ways to win and lose.

Move to sports – As children can manage winning and losing at board games, you might introduce winning and losing at sports.  Again, at three, four or five years old it’s just about learning how to play, how to throw and catch and kick a ball. It’s about learning how to participate in classes and games, and how to listen to a teacher or coach. Actual winning and losing should start small here too. Think relays and races, 5 minute games, not 45 minute games.

Introduce competition – By six, seven or eight years old, many children with this supportive background are ready for competition in bigger sports. They are practiced at winning and losing, and know better how to manage themselves through the process.

Focus on individual skill building, effort, teamwork and progress – During this time and as they move into being competitive in sports, focus on their individual progress and growing skills way more than competition. Highlight their efforts, their hard work, their enjoyment and teamwork all in the positive. Focus children on doing their best, fully participating and giving their all.

Highlight the importance of practice – If your child wants to be better at something, talk about how doing anything better takes practice. Whether it’s improving her swim times or being better at playing the guitar, consistent effort and practice is what gets you there.

Reframe losing as a part of the game – To be able to play you have to learn to manage losing. Losing gives an opportunity to rethink strategies and evaluate skills, and let’s you know what to practice.

Focus on expressing your enjoyment – It might be helpful to start with the end in mind. Here’s a link to a good article that explains that even college players just want to hear, “I love to watch you play” from their parents. http://growingleaders.com/blog/what-parents-should-say-as-their-kids-perform/

Related children’s books

  • Winners Never Quit by Hamm
  • Berenstain Bears Play a Good Game by Berenstain
  • Sally Sore Loser by Sileo
  • Howard B Wigglebottom Learns About Sportsmanship by Binkow
  • Help Me Be Good Being a Bad Sport by Berry

 

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