What kids do — and don’t — need to know for kindergarten

With the school year underway in most parts of the country, many parents are understandably concerned about what their kids need to know before they walk into the classroom for the first time. For many, last year’s routine was unconventional, to say the least. So it’s no surprise many moms and dads are eager to know how best to prepare their kindergartners for a successful year of learning.

Do kids already need to know how to read or to count past 10? Parents might be surprised by what their kids do — and don’t — need to know before their first day of kindergarten. Let’s just say it has a lot more to do with social skills than subtraction.

Social skills

“I know that many people put the emphasis on academics, but as a kindergarten teacher, we teach all the academics,” Nicole Evert, a kindergarten and preschool teacher in Grayslake, Illinois, told In The Know via email. “The social, emotional and independence skills are so much more important for children entering kindergarten.”

When it comes to social skills for little ones, that means working together in a group setting. Kindergarten classrooms, Evert said, don’t involve “just independent work at your seat.”

“It’s a lot of teacher read-aloud and the teacher working with the whole group,” she added. “And some children have never been in a group, so they don’t understand the dynamic of, we take turns to talk, and everyone gets a turn. And when it’s time to listen, we need to listen.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which also stresses the social, emotional and behavioral milestones to determine school readiness, recommends that kids also be able to “focus and pay attention,” “cooperate and follow directions” and “empathize with others.”

While preschool programs offer opportunities for kids to get familiar with those group dynamics, Evert also recommends library storytimes for those who haven’t attended preschool.

“Having that piece of it, where they understand the group and how to be with other children, socializing with other children, is great because when they come in, they get time to talk to these other 5-year-olds who are going to be in their class all year.”

Emotional skills

Being able to separate from parents is another important step in early kindergarten success, according to Evert. In addition to helping with emotional skills, this kind of separation also helps build independence in kids.

“It’s really important that when children come into kindergarten that they have a great relationship with their parents but are also [are] able to separate from their parents,” Evert explained. “Many of the kids struggle on the first day because they have never left mom or dad or whoever is their guardian.”

That said, the ability to separate goes for parents as well.

“It’s almost like we have to be like, ‘OK, Mom, now you really just have to go. I know your daughter’s crying or your son’s crying, and I’m just going to take them. And in about five minutes, I’ll send you a picture of them smiling, I promise.”

Numbers, letters, colors and shapes

Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, M.D., a pediatrician in Sonoma County, CA, echoes the need for age-appropriate social-emotional skills. She also mentions a few academic skills that kids should know before entering kindergarten.

While each school district has different requirements, there are basics that will help little ones succeed.

“Your child should be able to identify at least three colors,” Dr. Poinsett shared over email. “Shapes that a 5-year-old can recognize are a triangle, circle and square.”

When it comes to numbers and counting, she explained that a child should be able to count [up] to between 10 and 20, recognizing some numbers even when they’re out of order.

“Your child should be able to recite or sing the alphabet song,” Dr. Poinsett added. “She should also be able to identify at least 10 letters, both lower and uppercase.

Motor skills

Strong motor skills in certain areas are critical for young learners, as they will be navigating everything from coloring and cutting paper to zipping backpacks and using the bathroom.

“Children entering kindergarten will be expected to be independent in the restroom,” Dana Sciullo, a licensed and registered pediatric occupational therapist (O.T.) in Pittsburgh, PA, told In The Know via email.

That means not only managing their clothing but also “eliminating waste, cleaning themselves thoroughly, pulling their underwear and pants back on, washing their hands [while] using soap and water, and drying their hands,” Sciullo explained. “When broken down, it’s a lot of steps to master!”

Practicing using crayons and other writing utensils will also help kids strengthen control of their hands and fingers.

“Kindergarten will provide many opportunities to draw, color and write numbers and the letters of the alphabet. All of these activities require the use of a writing utensil,” Sciullo added. “Children will have a much easier time learning these skills if they have already established a functional grasp.”

That goes for child-safe scissors, too.

“Children who are able to cut with [child-size] scissors will not only be physically safer during these activities but will also feel more confident in their ability to successfully complete them in a timely manner,” Sciullo told In The Know.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that parents don’t need to stress the hardcore academics when it comes to preparing their child for kindergarten. The reading, math and sometimes even science and social studies will come in the classroom.

“We’re going to teach all the academics in kindergarten. We’re going to teach them their letters. We’re going to teach them [how to write] their names,” Evert told In The Know. “I’ve had kids come to me, and their name was a straight line, and they knew no letters at all. And guess what? They left kindergarten reading; they were awesome. So if they come in ready to learn with that mindset of ‘I can separate from my parents, I can talk to other kids, I can follow along in a group and be part of a group and raise my hand, and I can be a little independent and get myself ready to be in the classroom’ — we’re going to do everything else with them.”

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