The beginning of the school year is an exciting time for students and teachers alike. As new students arrive in my classroom for their first day of kindergarten, I am always reminded of how new and strange this environment is for many of them. As the year starts, new kindergarten students look around to find their bearings. There is a broad spectrum of experiences and abilities from which they draw as they start their educational journey. Some have been exposed to a structured classroom in childcare and preschools, while for others, this is the first time leaving the nest and learning from someone other than a parent or primary caregiver. Often, due to early learning best practices, children with a preschool background are better prepared to succeed in kindergarten.
High-quality preschool and early learning programs support young children of all backgrounds and abilities to grow and develop. The benefits are especially pronounced for low-income, children of color and children with early life trauma. Preschool programs enrich a child’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Children learn academic skills in early literacy, handwriting, and math. In addition to the academics, students learn the social, emotional and cognitive skills to thrive in environments outside of the home. This socialization is evident when observing a student’s ability to interact with other students and follow classroom structure. Preschool students also learn about the Zones of Regulation and how to recognize their feelings, which will help them with communication and problem-solving skills they can apply to future situations. As a kindergarten teacher, I can tell which students had an enriching, high quality early learning experience.
Children who have been exposed to structure, academics, and socialization have a head start in kindergarten. As children begin the school year, they take assessments to help determine their academic level and aptitude. As a grade level, we look at how many uppercase and lowercase letters students know, how many uppercase and lowercase letters they can recognize in a minute if students can repeat a variety of different sentences after they hear them orally, and to see if students can recognize rhyme and other phonological skills.We also take note if students can hold a pencil, write their name, and cut with scissors.
Our grade-level team uses these skills students know as a foundation. We put students into point-of-need or leveled focus groups. We arrange our groups of students to help them learn the skills they need to progress in reading and language arts. In the beginning, a child who can identify 11 letter names in a minute and six sounds in a minute is at an average introductory kindergarten level while students who score fewer or even none will have additional work to do in order to catch up with and stay on pace with their peers. Students with the previous letter and phonics exposure are better prepared to reach these goals than students who are learning them for the first time. Our grade level goal in these focus groups is to have our outgoing kindergarten students go into first grade knowing 43 letter names in a minute, and 30 sounds in a minute. They should recognize all uppercase and lowercase letters and produce all consonant and short vowel sounds. They are expected to read CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words and read at least 60 high-frequency words. They will be able to write opinion, narrative, and informative paragraphs using grammar and language skills. They must also write legibly following the handwriting rules.
As the class moves forward into the first week, the students will learn together how to work as a class as they go through a structured day of activities. From calendar time to specials, students will learn routine, discipline, time management, and develop processes and procedures which they will use for the rest of the year. They get to experience playing with other children and practice social skills in problem-solving. They get opportunities to be a leader and have responsibilities and learn independence. They learn to listen to and follow oral directions. All these skills will help them be successful in school.
Times in education have changed over the years. Where it once may have been commonplace to have kids start their elementary schooling in the first grade, many students I have encountered in my years as an educator has had a preschool experience and at least a half-day kindergarten class. A student beginning their education in a first-grade classroom with no previous exposure to a learning environment would be years behind their peers’ inexperience. The challenge to learn academics, structure, and socialization skills is not the students’ alone. For a teacher, the challenge of teaching a new student these skills while challenging students who have already been practicing them for several years is a daunting one.
Preschool and kindergarten give children the foundation to become lifelong learners. While all students will struggle in their own areas throughout the educational process, providing an opportunity to learn at an early age sets up students for success.
Hillsdale Elementary School
West Ada Education Association