Last month, the White House announced the winners of a hotly contested competition among states for early childhood Race to the Top funding. Proposals from governors — 17 Republicans and 18 Democrats — totaled more than four times the available funding and underscored the fact that long-term academic success depends in a large part on how well-prepared young children are for elementary school. Of course, with budget constraints, all of America is looking for cost-effective ways to invest in America’s future. As parents begin making plans for their preschoolers for the coming year, they can use clear tips from new research to help get kids ready to learn when they walk through the doors on the first day of kindergarten.
A child’s I.Q., intellectual ability and social and emotional skills are like muscles — they develop or atrophy based on how well adults help children apply effort through specific actions starting from a young age. A seven-year study in Silicon Valley showed that children demonstrating academic readiness and the ability to self-regulate — especially paying attention during activities and following multi-step directions — by kindergarten were three times as likely to meet reading level standards by third grade. This list of practical tips can help prepare kids academically and socially:
1) Read, read, read with each child — at least 20 minutes daily. Make it fun and engaging. Use reading as a basis for conversation with your child. Keep books in eyesight in baskets, on shelves and coffee tables. Placing books within reach for kids — and kids seeing parents read books of their own — stimulates reading activity. Parents who don’t read well in English can be effective by reading in their native language or showing a book while making up stories. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, published in November 2011, shows that kids whose parents read with them regularly at a young age performed as much as a year ahead of their peers academically by age 15. If money is too tight to buy lots of books, take them out of the library.
2) Talk, talk, talk with your child — everywhere you go together. Prolong rather than abbreviate conversations. The average conversation length between parent and child correlates closely to the child’s future I.Q. and reading levels. Longer conversations help the parent and child do what researchers call the language dance — where parents ask open-ended questions, provide their own perspectives and use exchanges about basics as springboards into imaginative conversation.
3) Give at least three positive expectations or tips for each time you correct your child. Instead of always correcting your kids (“Stop that, don’t leave before clearing your plate,”) help them understand your expectations (“Once we finish eating, we’ll all clear the table to make room for playing here.”) When the child follows through, give specific positive praise for their efforts (“Thank you for waiting with us until everyone is ready to clear the table.”) As they learn academically, cite specific efforts (“You focused so well on practicing and learning to count!”) rather than attribute learning or failure to innate ability or personality.
4) Help children develop character and learn social and emotional skills. This includes patiently helping children learn to self-regulate through turn-taking games, two- and three-step directions and age-appropriate basic chores. While it takes many years to develop, self-control has double the impact of I.Q. on future educational success. And listen to a child one-on-one, while repeating the child’s sounds or words. As they grow, ask them to tell you something about their day. Build understanding of others’ perspectives by asking children what they think others are feeling.
5) Devote space and daily time in your home for kids’ imaginative and pretend play with your kids’ art up on walls. For children, play — with their family, with other children and by themselves — is fun. Play helps kids learn to interact with others and practice what they learn. Building blocks of character, positive relationships, language and academics are learned through play.
6) Find a high-quality pre-school for your child. Visit programs and ask about their goals for addressing academic, social and emotional needs. You can search for accredited programs through the National Association for the Education of Young Children and learn how to analyze a program’s fit for your child with the help of a book like Choosing the Right Preschool by Bryan and Emily Hassel. Send them to pre-school ready to learn with 10 to 12 hours of sleep and a good breakfast.
7) Limit how much your kids watch television — or any other screen. A study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows that over one hour daily of television negatively impacts future academic performance and impairs a child’s ability to pay attention.
8) Put mobile devices away for most of your time with kids. Talking or tapping on your phone can limit important parent/child conversation and can send a message that you don’t value time with your children.
I know, I know, all easier said than done. As a parent, I can assure you that many days go by when I don’t get these right. But these tips will work best if we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Even if you have a bad week, keep at it. Kids are resilient and they love learning. They can catch up for lost time. Making progress will brighten your child’s future.