Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Child Just Started Kindergarten and It's NOT Going Well!

You guys were all ready.  New clothes, supplies, snacks, were all set.  He knew all his numbers and letters, and was even starting to read a few words.  This was gonna be awesome.  A picture in front of the house on the first day and she got on the bus or your dropped him off in the first carpool.  All smiles and expectations.

Then you got the first email from the teacher.

She's not behaving.  He's not finishing his work.  She can't sit still during circle time.  His Kindergarten screening found some possible learning issues.  You aren't sure whom this teacher is writing about, because it's not YOUR kid!  There were no problems in preschool, you know she's smart, she's never hit another child before!  Why does he cry everyday when I drop him off?

First of all, I'm sorry things are not going well.  Like the bride caught outdoors in a cloudburst during the vows, this is a major event that has not lived up to expectations.  It stinks.  If this is your first child, it stinks even worse because this is probably the first time expectation has not matched reality.  Been there, done that.  So did my parents.  So has just about every parent on the planet.  It's not easy, but you will survive.

The issue at hand is trying to figure out what is going on, and taking steps to improve the situation.  Those steps may need to be taken at home, or at school.  Most likely they will need to be taken both places.  Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1.  "What previous experience has my child had with a large group of children?"
  How big were the preschool classes?  Did she even go to preschool?  Classrooms with upwards of 20+ children can be noisy places with a lot of activity that may be confusing.  That might be part of the issue.

2.  "How are the expectations for behavior at school the same or different from those at home?"
  Does school expect your child to be more self-controlled without several reminders? Does the school have higher expectations for things like sitting still and being kind to others?  If so, and you want your child to meet those expectations at school, you will need to change them at home to match.  Are the expectations lower?  That can cause confusion.  In that case you may need to explain why standards are higher at home.

3.  "How much emphasis have I placed on my child excelling?" 
Be honest with yourself.  Are your expectations for behavior or academic achievement too high for your child right now?  Are they too high for any five-year-old?  No matter what you say to your child, they know what your expectations are.  They also know when they aren't meeting them.  Sadly, it's not unusual for a young child who is struggling to tell me that they aren't "doing good."  They will not be able to tell me what that means, but they know they have a problem.

4.  "Is my child ready for Kindergarten?"
  Some five-year-old aren't, either academically or socially.  This link can help answer that question:  Like every other aspect of school, Kindergarten has changed dramatically in the last few decades.  Teachers expect children to come in the first day ready to learn.  School can be stressful for a child who is not ready, and their school career begins on a negative note.  It is OK to give them the gift of an extra year.

So now you have answered all of those questions, and there still doesn't seem to be any reason why your child is having difficulty.  Here is what you should now ask of the school:
  • If your child is having behavior issues you should request a meeting with the teacher and the principal as soon as possible.  At that meeting you should request an observation, and ask what will happen long term.  You should also request that the school provides some sort of brief daily behavior report via paper, text or email. That way you are hearing about good days and minor issues as well as serious ones.  Your school counselor should meet with your child to see if they can help. The counselor can also see if you need some extra professional help outside of school.
  • If your child seems anxious, you should ask to meet with the teacher to see if they have suggestions. They might have observed situations that seem to trigger the anxiety. When separation is an issue, the teacher might have suggestions on how to improve the transition. If the anxiety doesn't not start to ease off after the first few weeks of school, or seems to get worse, you should also consult the school counselor.
  • If your child is having trouble managing the academic material, your first step is to request a meeting with the teacher.  Even a child who can write numbers and words at home may still have a learning issue that a parent cannot see.  Most schools do some sort of screening for incoming Kindergarten students.  You should let the teacher know in advance that you would like to review that screening along with seeing examples of you child's work.  If the data provided seems to indicate that your child is having difficulty, you should ask if the school has a student support team or student assistance team.  This process usually provides a child with research-based strategies to improve learning.
    Often children are having difficulty in more than one of these areas.  For example, anxiety can contribute to poor academic performance.  Likewise, a child who feels frustrated with academics can act out.  It's important to make sure that your meetings with school personnel take all issues and factors into account.  School personnel need to collect the correct data in all areas. That data must present the most complete picture of what is happening with the child.

Now that we have spoken about what you should request from the school, here are some things that you need to do:

1. Take a breath.  I will guarantee you that your child is not the only one in a group of 25 that is having difficulty.  This bump in the road, as much as it stinks, does not mean you are a bad parent.  It does mean you have to adjust your expectations for this school year.  With your consistent effort, things will get better.

2.  Do not refer to the child as "bad".  The behavior is inappropriate, not the child.  Children who see themselves as "bad" have a very hard time finding incentive or the possibility to change.  Please do not do this.  Period.

3.  Listen to your child, then check with the teacher or principal.   Five-year-olds love attention.  They figure out pretty quickly how to tell a story that will give them just that - whether it's telling Mom that they are bullied, or telling the teacher that they didn't eat breakfast. (And they tell us all sorts of interesting things........)  Sometimes they are not lying deliberately.  They have a fuzzy idea of the difference between fantasy and reality.  They also have a fuzzy idea of time. They can combine something that happened in the morning with something that happened in the afternoon into one event.  This to say that as a parent you have to trust, but verify.  BTW, even if they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they still have a fuzzy sense of reality and time.  It's kind-of like even though they have an 8th grade vocabulary, they are still only 3 feet tall.  So please do not mistake advanced speech for advanced development.  They are two different things.

4.  Reward positive behavior.
  Yep, deliberately kicking a classmate should have a negative consequence at home.  Those of us at school actually count on that.  I don't care whether the child was provoked or not.  On the other hand, disrupting circle time maybe doesn't have a consequence, but sitting still has a reward.  "You did your job well today, so you get to take a walk with Mom or Dad" or extra LEGO time, etc.  Research has demonstrated time and time again that rewarding positive behavior has more of an effect than punishing negative behavior.  This tends to be true when the negative behavior is not too serious.  Behaviors best managed through positive reinforcement include disrupting or distracting others, not obeying certain rules, or not finishing schoolwork.

So Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa), with your consistent help, things will gradually get better.  Please do not wait for the situation to go away with time.  It might, but an attitude toward school, one that is not positive, may be forged in the meantime.  I have a friend who still remembers being sent home from Kindergarten on the first day because he fell off the jungle gym.  That's probably not exactly what happened, but the memory is "I screwed up on the first day of school and had to come back the next year."  His folks probably felt the same way, which is why they never said anything to him about it.  This memory is now 45 years old.  Partner with your school and make some positive things happen.  Email/msg/tweet me if you need help.  FB - Pamela Mecca Seymour, LPC, Twitter @pam327.

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