UW-Madison: Countdown to kindergarten: UW expert offers tips for starting school



CONTACT: Beth Graue, (608) 263-4661 [email protected]


As a parent, one day you’re changing diapers and struggling to function due to a lack of sleep. And the next thing you know, you awaken from the haze to realize your little baby is ready to march off to school for that first year of formal education.

It can be a bit of a scary time for kids – and their parents.

So with the start of the 2013-14 school year now just over the horizon, Beth Graue, UW-Madison’s Sorenson Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, recently shared tips on how to make this big transition go more smoothly.

Graue, who has been on the UW-Madison campus for more than two decades and also is the associate director of faculty, staff and graduate student development at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, started her career in education as a kindergarten teacher. Today, she is a highly regarded expert on kindergarten practice, readiness and home-school relations.

Graue sat down for a short question-and-answer session with Inside UW-Madison, the university’s electronic employee newsletter. Following is an edited transcript:

Inside UW-Madison: What are some of the things a parent can do to make sure that a child who is heading off to school for the first time, whether it be regular kindergarten or 4K, is equipped to succeed?

Graue: First, focus on self-help skills. Parents often don’t recognize that if you have a child in a class of between 15 and 22 students, the teacher can’t always help individuals. So make sure that your child knows how to change his clothes if he has an accident, and that she knows how to go to the bathroom on her own. They need to know how to put on shoes and put on a coat by themselves. They need to know how to put on and take off a backpack, which is a new thing for a lot of kids. And knowing how to zip and button are big plusses as well.

And knowing how to get help is important; so talking through what you do if you have to go to the bathroom or if you feel sick.

It’s also important to help a child build a new world in their head and help them develop a model of what that looks like. So show them the building they are going to be going to and walk them around on the playground. If they are going to take the bus, drive the bus route. If they are walking, walk the route. If they can find out who else might be going to this school in the neighborhood, make connections.

Inside UW-Madison: When the bell rings on that first day of school, some kids will eagerly head off to class with hardly a glance back, while others will cling to a parent due to a great deal of anxiety. Do you have any tips for reducing the separation anxiety?

Graue: I think that’s part of the idea of building a new world. Let your child know how you will never leave them there forever and how you will always come back. And as a parent, you have to be willing to trust that the world will work out and you can walk away.

But I know it’s not always easy. My first son I put on the bus screaming every day for two months. And even though I’m a former kindergarten teacher and it shouldn’t bother me, I thought it was going to kill me. It’s also important to recognize that usually, after a child and parent separate, that anxiety piece goes away and the kid sort of shifts gears and is usually just fine.

Inside UW-Madison: What types of skills should a kid entering 4K or kindergarten possess? Should they know the alphabet, how to count to 10, and how to write their name? Or is that what school is for – to learn these things?

Graue: Students need to be able to identify themselves by knowing their full name and be able to identify their stuff. So if your name is Fred, you need to know that F-R-E-D spells Fred and you need to be able to distinguish Fred’s stuff from all the other kids’ stuff in the classroom.

But I think self-help skills are important and social skills are the foundation types of things. So knowing how to share, how to work through conflict, how to negotiate things. Those are the foundation, the must-haves. The nice-to-have are identifying the letters in their own name. Parents shouldn’t worry about drilling their kids all of August trying to get them so they have all their letters and numbers. I think most teachers would be more interested in children coming to school with the ability to be a full-on learner; so a good disposition and interested in things.

Inside UW-Madison: Do you have any advice for the parents themselves?

Graue: I think that they shouldn’t underestimate the power of the emotion of taking your child to school for the first time. I sobbed. I just sobbed and sobbed and felt like an idiot. It’s a big transition in your child’s life and it’s symbolic and an important time. We as parents start losing a bit of the control we’ve had over managing our child’s life. The world gets bigger at this point. But that’s OK, because you don’t want them in this tiny little world when they’re 22.

At the end of the day, everything usually works out and the kids come back a little taller and a littler wiser and little smarter.