University experts offer tips for helping your preschooler or kindergartener start the year off right

University experts offer tips for helping your preschooler or kindergartener start the year off right

By Nick PrevenasUniversity Communications
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University experts say that establishing positive routines is important to help preschoolers and kindergarteners build a foundation for continued success.
University experts say that establishing positive routines is important to help preschoolers and kindergarteners build a foundation for continued success.
Melissa Barnett
Melissa Barnett
Rebecca Friesen
Rebecca Friesen
Lourdes Rodriguez
Lourdes Rodriguez

The first day of school is rapidly approaching, but it won't resemble any other school opening anyone has previously experienced. That is especially true for young learners who don't have any previous involvement with in-person education.

With the COVID-19 pandemic throwing traditional in-person education into upheaval, University of Arizona faculty and staff with school-age children are approaching this school year with equal parts trepidation and confusion. That feeling is undoubtedly amplified for parents with preschool- or kindergarten-age children who are embarking upon their first experiences with organized education.

To help parents navigate this unprecedented situation, Lo Que Pasa spoke with Melissa Barnett, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences; Rebecca Friesen, a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology; and Lourdes Rodriguez, senior coordinator for childcare and family resources in Life & Work Connections.

These three experts share strategies for helping young learners cope with the complexities of virtual education, while also advising parents on the best ways to establish positive routines to set the foundation for continued success. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

When many schools closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most parents, teachers and students approached online/hybrid learning as a temporary situation. Now that it isn't temporary, what can parents and young learners do to ensure that kids are receiving a quality education amid current circumstances?

Barnett: It's important to talk to kids about the positives and some of the fun things they will experience this school year. Making the effort to get to know your teacher and your classmates will be important, as well. Regardless of what your child's education looks like, it's important to have conversations ahead of time about what to expect. There will be new routines and new activities. Practicing some of those new routines and managing your child's expectations for what those routines will look like will be key.

Friesen: Love of learning contributes to academic achievement. Thus, making learning fun and engaging goes a long way towards ensuring a high-quality education. Have frequent conversations – particularly about what the children are learning – to encourage interest in school subjects and the world at large. The best times for these conversations might be at meals, on walks or at bedtime. Follow any interests that spark your child's imagination by getting books from the library, watching documentaries or finding hands-on options for developing this new interest. In addition to consulting with your child's teacher, check out MobyMax, a free online program that uses standards to detect areas to improve and can help you determine what level of challenge your child needs.

Rodriguez: Designate an area where your child will always "attend school." It should be away from distractions, but close to you so you can help if needed (it should not be the child's bedroom or playroom). This creates a visual message that helps the child differentiate among daily activities. Families with small spaces can maximize it by using temporary partitions or screens to divide the area. This can be as simple as a curtain hanging from a rope to a trifold presentation board decorated by the child. If more than one child needs space, explore the possibility of taking turns or placing the tables and chairs back to back to provide privacy without distractions. If noises are a problem, try a sound machine or music at a low volume to isolate them.

To help University of Arizona parents address some of the unique challenges of this situation, I am co-leading a workshop series this fall with James Naughton, an employee assistance counselor at Life & Work Connections, called "Building a Resilient Family in Uncertain Times." It begins Aug. 13 with a session on identifying your family's strengths. Employees can also meet with me one-on-one for a child care or parenting consultation, and I am happy to help you explore the options that work best for your family.

How can parents best set up their children for success if this is their first experience with organized education?

Barnett: Many families will have gotten used to using some sort of FaceTime or Zoom technology for family chats or storytime. It will be helpful to work in some version of those activities in advance of the first day of school.

Friesen: Aside from encouraging a love of learning, developing the habits of focused learning will set a good foundation for school. Establish an area in the home where all school-related materials are kept in order to minimize the need to search for materials when working.

Rodriguez: For those children who will start school for the first time, it is important to prepare them for both possible environments – remote learning or in-person learning. Take your child on a car ride to the school site to familiarize them with the building and location. Talk and read books to your child about what will come. Some good readings are "Clifford Goes to Kindergarten," "The Pigeon HAS to Go to School" and "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Teachers will be responsible for the material presented, so parents do not need to worry about supervising the content. Communicate openly with your child's teachers. Be ready to clarify the goals and expectations of the lessons if your child is showing difficulties, or if you are not sure how to help.

What can parents do to enhance socialization and cooperation in a remote learning environment?

Barnett: It won't be the same as kids naturally interacting with their peers on a playground. It will be interesting to see what kinds of interactions teachers are able to facilitate and how much peer-to-peer interaction there will be. If parents are going to be engaging with these sessions alongside their children, they can provide opportunities afterward to discuss what went well and what didn't. Parents can also talk about social interactions they see in books, television or movies.

Friesen: Vicarious models in books can develop empathy and social skills. Playing board or card games can teach about turn-taking and fairness. Model and practice good conversation skills at meals. If you have more than one child, learning social skills with siblings will go far in preparing one for any social situation.

Rodriguez: Remote learning provides limited opportunities to socialize or to develop motor skills, both fine and gross. Provide opportunities to play with different materials such as blocks, Play-Doh, paint and sand to strengthen the fine motor dexterity needed for writing. Outdoor playing supports gross motor development. It's also helpful to identify another family with children close in age to yours and coordinate weekly outdoor activities – while following physical distancing and mask usage – to allow socialization. If you do not feel comfortable joining other families, plan for virtual games such as cards, charades, etc., using FaceTime, Skype or Zoom.

For parents who opt for in-person education, how can they best support their children as they enter an unfamiliar and perhaps intimidating learning environment (socially distant, masks, less mobility)?

Barnett: Much like with virtual learning, it will be important to give your kids a clear understanding of the rules and what will be expected of them. Try to make the masks seem exciting and interesting. Emphasize the positives whenever possible and discuss with them that this will continue to be the norm for the foreseeable future. For kids learning in live settings, think about practicing those rules with masks and distancing as much as you can. Make it so kids know what to expect and give them opportunities to make mistakes at home.

Friesen: Learn as much as you can about what the environment and rules will be and make these clear to your child. Talk with them about their day and ask about their highs and lows. Many kids don't want to talk immediately after school but will be much more open at meals or at bedtime.

Rodriguez: If your child will attend school in person, be sure to model the proper way to care for themselves. Prior to starting school, plan a trip to the store or other errand with your child. Teach them how to keep physical distance and how to wear a mask. Be sure to talk/describe the "process" in a casual and relaxed tone. Avoid expressing negative feelings or comments. Turn this new reality into something fun. Play games with your child, like "Let's see who can spot the funniest mask."

Are there any specific strategies that can help somewhat abstract concepts such as flexibility, persistence and adaptability stick in the mind of a young learner?

Barnett: The No. 1 way to communicate those concepts is by modeling them yourself. Demonstrate flexibility and adaptability as often as possible. Point it out to your kids when they exhibit those behaviors and give them positive reinforcement. Also, it is important to note that this is unprecedented. There isn't any research on this. We don't know what this pandemic will do to social development. We're all in this together.

Friesen: Sometimes adults forget how hard it was to learn to read and we might have unrealistic expectations for how long a child can focus on this challenging task. Fun and short sessions can be effective for producing persistence. Although sticking with a schedule is important, learning to be flexible is also important. Parents can often anticipate when flexibility will be required and talking about this ahead of time can smoothe the situation. Sometimes we have "off days," too, and we just need to call it that and move on. Tomorrow is a new day!

Rodriguez: No matter what type of learning style your child receives, the most needed support to facilitate learning is a safe and nurturing home environment. Remember to be patient. Your child, like everyone in the family, needs time to adjust to new routines and responsibilities. Practice self-care to allow yourself to remain calm during difficult moments. This will set an example for the younger ones. Model and practice with your child ways to self-soothe and relax. Finally, assure your child that, eventually, all these difficulties will come to an end.

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