What do you remember about Kindergarten? Surprisingly, even for those of us who entered adulthood long ago, the answer is typically “a lot.” It’s more than a grade, it’s one of our earliest milestones in life. It’s often a child’s first big step—in a kid’s size 12 shoe—into something similar to independence and responsibility, yet still draped in imagination and wide-eyed wonder.
In direct correlation to a child’s exhilaration in beginning this new adventure is the conflict in a parent’s heart in watching it happen. While the transition from preschool to Kindergarten recognizes and celebrates healthy development, it’s also a whisper in a parent’s ear that their baby is growing up. After drop-off on the first day of Kindergarten, Boo-hoo Breakfasts have become standard events for parents to shed tears, console each other, and reflect on how five years passed so quickly.
There are many reasons to admire my school community, but one that ranks highly is the care we give the Kindergarten experience. We maintain two sections of Kindergarten classes and have a wealth of communal knowledge supporting our instruction of this special grade.
To help parents who have a child entering Kindergarten in the near future, I asked some current and former teachers, “How do you know when a child is ready for Kindergarten?”
Mrs. Lucy Halsell, a current Kindergarten teacher, explained that a few basic indications of Kindergarten readiness include the ability to write a first name legibly, show proficiency in letter recognition, enter a classroom independently carrying a backpack, and interact in small groups with peers. She and fellow Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Kelli Freeman each have approximately two decades of elementary teaching experience. They agree that a five-year-old should be able to sit for fifteen minutes (e.g., the time it takes to hear a children’s story) and display a willingness to receive instructions.
When asked how a parent might prepare their child for Kindergarten at Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School (STE), Head of Lower School Mrs. Erica Maw suggests some very simple actions. “Parents should ask about their child’s day and use it as an opportunity to practice letter sounds and words.” While conducting family interviews as a part of the admissions process, she observes whether preschoolers are able to verbally interact with adults and properly express themselves. She also assesses fine motor skills. “Working on fine motor skills and using manipulatives—writing instruments, tweezers, and children’s scissors—helps to build dexterity, focus, and task orientation,” explains Mrs. Maw.
One of the commonalities she sees in successful elementary school children is something that starts at home. “Good habits that are reinforced by parents are essential,” adds Mrs. Maw. Healthy structure with consistent bedtimes, proper eating habits, adequate sleep, controlled screen time, and at-home responsibilities benefit a student’s learning throughout the entire school day.
In considering some of the uniquely powerful aspects of Kindergarten at STE, all of the educators I spoke with referenced a balance of activities during the school day. While proud of the accelerated academic program in math and reading, they agree that incorporating lots of play time, group interaction, and ancillary learning is equally essential to child development. The many STE teachers instructing Kindergarteners in art, dance, music, science, library learning, and physical education share more than a century of teaching experience among them.
These educators also shared a point of pride in adhering to curriculum that is neither offered in the public system nor by many other private schools. For example, an emphasis on the phonetic method of reading, handwriting skills, telling time on an analog clock, receiving scriptural lessons that enforce love and kindness: these are academic and social-emotional building blocks that support growth throughout the school year and into successive grades.
Mrs. Gretchen Hesse, a retired STE administrator and Kindergarten teacher, offers one last suggestion for families: embrace the process rather than let it be a source of anxiety. She offers, “Children should become comfortable with the campus where they’ll be attending Kindergarten. Parents should drive by it with their preschooler on occasion and attend events there such as fairs, Open Houses, theater productions, and athletic games.”
While we may not whole-heartedly subscribe to author Robert Fulghum’s notion of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, there’s definitely some wisdom there. The academic foundation, the sense of self that begins to develop, the introduction of a broad array of interests, and the learning of how to properly interact with peers and adults is the core of a successful Kindergarten experience. As parents, our children are our most precious resource, and starting their academic journey in the best possible way is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Danny Kahalley, Director of Admissions at Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School, has fifteen years of experience in education administration and has worked for numerous schools and colleges in Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas at the primary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate level. He has his bachelor’s degree from Rhodes College and master’s degree from the University of Alabama.