Each month, you'll be able to get answers directly from experts covering a wide range of parenting topics. You'll also have a chance to share your own expert tips with other parents. Join the conversation!
Jennifer Klepper is an ex-corporate attorney turned PTO president, volunteer child advocate and Cwist contributor. She is leading a discussion on inspriring curiosity and independence in girls with nature. Read and Comment »
Ann Barbour is a child development expert and advisor to the award-winning daily PBS series A Place of Our Own. Read more »
Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions.
Cathryn from Philadelphia, PA, writes:
My mother used to take care of my daughter while I worked, but she got very ill and can no longer take care of her. She is the only one that my daughter would learn anything from. I have tried so many times to teach her numbers and the ABCs, but she seems not to want to, or wants to play around like she doesn't know them when i know she does know them. How do I stop her thinking my mother is her only teacher?
Your mother's illness is unfortunate for your whole family. I hope she regains her health soon. Be reassured, however, that your daughter continues to learn from all her experiences and all the interactions she has with others, not just the ones she had when your mother was able to care for her.
I don't know how old your daughter is, but in general, preschool-age children learn best when the activities in which they're engaged are directly connected to their every day experiences and are fun for them. Children show interest in those things they're ready to learn, so the key to helping your daughter learn is likely to be tapping into those things that capture her curiosity and attention.
You mention that she's mostly interested in playing. This is natural and to be expected. Many adults don't realize that play is young children's primary way of learning. Sometimes it can seem that children aren't learning anything "worthwhile" during play - at least not the kinds of skills that will enable them to succeed in school - but, on the contrary, play enables them to recreate in their own way the things they've experienced in order to understand them better. It also supports children in learning and practicing many important skills they'll need in school such as taking initiative, problem solving, persistence in carrying out ideas, along with scientific and mathematical concepts such as cause-and-effect and spatial relationships. It also helps them develop many important social and physical skills. For these reasons and many more, it's often said that "play is the work of childhood."
Your daughter is more likely to respond positively to the learning activities you provide for her if they're relaxed, playful and connected to things in which she's interested than if you try to teach her to say the alphabet or to count by quizzing or drilling her. The latter approach can be counterproductive. It can also cause resistance and stress.
There are many ways you can encourage your daughter's early literacy skills throughout the day. Recognizing letters is only one of these skills. Read to her as often as you can. Point out letters and words in the environment. ("That sign starts with the same letter as your name.") Model how you use reading and writing and numbers during the day and let her participate in her own way. For example, if you're making a list, ask her to help you "write" too. Doing things that grown-ups do is often very interesting to young children. Tell her stories and sing songs with her. Many classic children's songs and nursery rhymes include numbers and counting.
Give your daughter play materials (these are not necessarily store- bought toys) that include print so she can connect how letters/words look with how they are used to convey meaning. For example, if she's an older preschooler, she can use empty food containers, play money and blank paper to play "grocery story." As you play with her, you can point out certain features of the print and words and help her count money and other items. You might consider buying a set of magnetic letters to keep on the refrigerator or a package of pipe cleaners (chenille stems) that you and she can use to form letters. If you watch your daughter play, you'll probably see other ways to incorporate literacy and mathematical materials that are naturally related to what she's doing.
Tisha from Gardena, CA, writes:
My son will be two years old in two weeks. He only has six words that he is able to use. He is not speaking with any word combinations. He is not losing any words. What are some activities that I can use to increase his language skills?
Each child grows and develops at his or her own rate and there may be big differences from one child to another, even within the same family. However, while toddlers typically understand much, much more than they are able to put into words, by about 24 months, most children have a 50- to 100-word vocabulary and can use 2-word combinations. So your question is a very important one. I have two recommendations that I hope are helpful.
First, do everything you can to encourage his language development during every day activities. Build language interactions with your son into your daily routines. Talk about what you and he are doing and seeing as much as possible so that he is surrounded by language during meals, chores, going places together, or bath time. Think of yourself as a narrator. ("Look how small and round those peas are." "I'm putting these dirty shoes outside." "You made a big splash in the water!") Not only will he hear many kinds of words in the process, he'll learn to associate those words with the actions, objects and thoughts you're describing. Be sure to read to him every single day. Snuggle together and make this a special time for just the two of you. Point to pictures and ask him to tell you what he sees. If he's not able to do this yet, tell him about the pictures, especially the ones he finds most interesting. In addition, keep books in accessible places. When he shows interest, try to stop what you're doing for a few minutes, and talk with him about what he's found in the books. Teach him simple nursery rhymes and songs, and tell him stories. Also, engage him in pretend play. When you pretend with him, you will have even more opportunities to model language. And dramatic play props themselves can help. A toy telephone (or a broken real one), for example, is a wonderful item to encourage language.
Second, consider requesting a developmental screening. By law, every state provides no-cost screening and early intervention programs. No matter where you live, you can contact your local school district. Personnel there will put you in touch with the proper organization or agency to arrange for this kind of evaluation. In California this service and any other early intervention services that may be warranted are coordinated by Regional Centers. The benefit of arranging for your son to be evaluated now is that the results will either assure you his development is on track or, it can identify a language delay if one exists. In the latter event, it will provide the key to resources and special services that can help you further support his development.
Doreen from El Cajon, CA, writes:
My stepdaughter will be starting school September. Each week for more than a year now, she has been with her birth mother from Tuesday afternoon through Thursday afternoon. The two households are less than a mile apart. Her birth mom and I have very different attitudes towards school and learning. Her son is now a senior and he reads and writes at about a fourth grade level. I am experiencing a lot of anxiety over what we can expect when my step-daughter starts school.
Any two parents, whether biological or step or living in the same household or not, are bound to have different perspectives about how to raise children, some of them dramatically different. These views are rooted in their individual backgrounds, experiences, and values. As you've described, different perspectives and child rearing approaches can potentially lead to conflict. They can also mean that children receive mixed messages about what's acceptable and expected. To avoid this as much as possible, it's a good idea to discuss your points of view and the reasons for them with your step- daughter's biological mother, but in ways that avoid blame or making her feel defensive. It's also important to listen carefully to her side of things, even if you don't agree with them. Establishing and maintaining open, respectful communication is the first step in preventing problems and working them out if they arise. Good communication and conflict resolution often involve "both/and" solutions rather than "either/or" solutions.
Since your daughter spends part of the week with you and the other part with her biological mother, it will also be important that both of you keep in touch with her school and her kindergarten teacher. This may mean that you (and your husband) and she attend school events or conferences, either separately or together. It may also mean requesting that any information sent home is duplicated so that both households receive it. Most schools are receptive to this request because adults who share responsibilities for a child's care and education do not always reside under the same roof.
Given your attitudes about the importance of school and your belief in encouraging your step-daughter's own efforts, I'm sure you'll convey these to her by example and through reinforcement for her own endeavors. If you're able to get involved in her school experiences - either through activities that you do at home together or in her classroom - you'll be able to further support her learning. This kind of family involvement is a main ingredient in school success.
Nita from Bridgeport, CT, writes:
At what age do children start preschool? Do they have to be potty-trained?
In general, children who are around three years of age are becoming more interested in the wider world and have the social skills to function well in group settings with their peers. For these reasons, preschool programs have traditionally been thought of as mainly serving three- and four-year-olds. Even so, playgroups or mommy-and-me programs for younger children have existed for a long time. However, since increasing numbers of parents require childcare, care and early educational programs frequently overlap these days. Some children enter a home- or center-based program in infancy. So, in answer to your question: the age at which a child enrolls in an early care and education program depends on the type of program and setting as well as the parents' needs and goals for their child.
Programs come in many forms and even go by different names. They can be called preschool, pre-kindergarten, nursery school, parent-coops, daycare, in-home care or even moms' day out. There are government-funded programs for three- and four-year-olds, such as Head Start, a federally funded program for low-come families, and others that are state-funded. A few states fund "universal preschool: programs for all four-year-olds, regardless of parents' income level, and several other states are considering a move in this direction. There are also private programs operated by for-profit, nonprofit or religious organizations. Some of these programs enroll children much younger than three. Each program is designed for particular groups of children and has its own selection criteria and policies about enrollment. One of these policies is whether or not a child needs to be toilet trained.
Your goal should be finding a preschool program that's right for your child and your family. Investigate programs that are available to you in your area and that provide the kind of care and education that would benefit your child most. Two organizations can help you in this search. The National Association for the Education of Young Children accredits center-based programs, and the National Association for Family Child Care accredits family childcare programs. When the time comes, I hope you find a preschool program that supports your child's developmental needs and encourages his eagerness to learn.
Denerys from the Bronx, NY, writes:
My son is three years old and may have a speech problem. How can I guide him in the right direction educationally?
If you're concerned about your son's speech or language, it's important to have him evaluated as soon as possible. A developmental screening can determine whether a speech or language delay actually exists and, in the event it does, can help you access early intervention services. Contact your local school district. Personnel there will put you in touch with a program in your area. There is no cost for a developmental screening and you do not need a referral from your pediatrician. But do ask the person or team that does the evaluation to share the results with him or her. Early diagnosis and intervention services are critically important in preventing or minimizing future problems.
Whether or not your son has a speech or language delay or the extent of it, it's important to "bathe" him in language. Talk to him frequently during daily activities and give him plenty of opportunities to respond at his own pace and level of ability. Listen carefully to him with undivided attention. Children learn speech sounds and language patterns by being continuously exposed to language and through responsive interactions with parents and other adults who care for them. These approaches will nurture your son's social/emotional and cognitive development, while supporting his speech and language development. And they can augment any intervention services that may be indicated based on a developmental screening.
Debora from Glen Mills, PA, writes:
How do you decide whether to send your child to school when his or her birthday is a few days before the school's cutoff date? I have two children that will fall into this category. I am feeling torn about making this decision and am wondering what you might recommend.
Different views and recommendations about what to do when a child's birthday falls near the cutoff date can make this a difficult decision. An important thing to remember, though, is that each of your children is unique and chronological age is only one factor that should be considered in making this decision. Two children born on the same date may be developmentally quite different; one may benefit from an extra year before starting kindergarten, while the other is ready and raring to go.
Gathering as much information as you can about your options and comparing this information to what you know about each of your children can help make this decision easier for you when the time comes. In the end, you may even decide that what seems best for one of your children is not necessarily best for the other.
First, find out as much as you can about the type of kindergarten program your children will attend. Is it a half-day or full-day program? What is the daily schedule like? What curriculum approaches are used? Is instruction delivered mainly in a whole group setting or are children working in activity centers with opportunities to go at their own pace, make choices and move around? Visit the school, talk with an administrator and teacher and observe in a kindergarten class. How similar is what you see happening in the classroom to your children's preschool experience (if they've been in the pre-K program) or to what they've experienced at home? Can you picture your children doing well and feeling comfortable in this setting? Then consider what your children will be doing if you decide not to send them to kindergarten. How will the experiences they will have in kindergarten compare to those they will have at home or in a preschool program? Will these experiences be as interesting and stimulating? Knowing each of your children as you do, which experiences do you think will be more appropriate for him or for her?
If your children have attended preschool, talk with their teachers. Find out whether the teachers believe your children have developed the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten. Ask about each child's level of social competence, physical development, communicative skills, approaches to learning and general knowledge. If your school district offers a kindergarten screening, this evaluation will provide one more bit of information that can help you make this decision. But remember, no single measure of a child offers a complete or accurate picture.
If you've talked with other parents whose children have been in kindergarten or who are also grappling with this same dilemma, remember that not only is each child unique but that other parents' perspectives and goals for their children may be different than your own.
Whichever decision you make, your continued interest, support and involvement with your children is likely to be the most important factor in the long run.
Tammy from Council Bluffs, IA, writes:
I have a five-year-old son, and he is going into kindergarten next year. He didn't go to preschool because "he didn't need it as much as some other kids." That is what we were told. How do I get him ready?.
This is an exciting time for you and your family as you look forward to your son going to kindergarten. I'm glad you're thinking about what you can do now to help him be ready for this important year. There actually are a number of things to consider because school readiness involves a child's social/emotional and physical development as well as his cognitive development. Helping your son start school eager to learn also entails facilitating his adjustment to a new environment, new people, and a new routine. Here are some things to think about:
Many kindergarten teachers believe it's more important for children to be able to function cooperatively in a group setting - for example, to be able to take turns, share and respect the property of others - than it is for them to know most of the alphabet or to count to 20. It's also important for them to be able to follow directions, pay attention long enough to listen to a story in a group, and exercise self-control. You can help your son practice these skills at home along with arranging times for him to play with his peers.
Give your child lots of time to play outside, to run, jump and climb and develop his large muscles. You can also encourage him to use his fine motor skills so that he can control a pencil and cut with scissors. Providing opportunities for him to experiment with writing will help him develop fine motor skills at the same time that he learns to express himself through symbols (drawing, scribbling, perhaps even letters). You can also help him practice self-help skills, like getting dressed, using the toilet and washing his hands by himself.
One of the most important things you can do is to read to your son every day. The more you can read together, the better. This will help him develop language skills, vocabulary, and concepts about print that are precursors to learning to read. It will also cultivate positive attitudes about reading. Talk with him about the books you read, point out letters and words, and ask him to "read" stories to you based on the pictures. You can support his pre-writing skills by keeping drawing and writing supplies handy and encouraging him to draw or "write" stories or notes to friends or relatives. You can show him how to write his name or any words he asks for, but keep things fun and relaxed and expect imperfection. And, of course, praise his efforts.
You can also expand his understanding of the world around him by going places together (a park, museum, library), exploring the natural environment, and talking with him about what he sees and thinks. Encourage his curiosity and his questions. Additionally, you can help him learn specific skills and concepts - the names of colors and shapes, recognizing some letters and numbers - during everyday activities. Point out letters and words in the environment, let him set the table and count the number of utensils needed, and play guessing games. Find materials that include print and numbers, like play money, for him to use in his dramatic play.
Transition to School
To ease his transition to school, try to learn more about the type of kindergarten program your son will attend, particularly the degree to which it focuses on academic instruction. In general, kindergarten is more academic than it was a generation or even a decade ago. Different schools use different approaches to teach reading and writing and this can mean different expectations for what children will learn and do in kindergarten. For that reason, it's a good idea to visit the school and talk with the principal, guidance counselor, or the teacher your son will have to learn more about the curriculum and the school's general expectations for kindergarten entry skills. Many schools hold a "kindergarten round-up" or orientation day for parents and children. If possible, visit a classroom. Your son will feel more comfortable going to kindergarten if he knows what to expect and is familiar with the environment.
You can also arrange opportunities for him to form friendships with other children who also will be new to kindergarten. It might be fun for them to play together on the school playground.
Talk with him often about kindergarten. Answer his questions and find out how he feels about this big event. Let him know that it's OK if he feels anxious.
There are a number of good children's books about starting school that can encourage these kinds of conversations and can help relieve any anxiety he may feel. You may be able to find others at your public library.
The U.S. Department of Education publishes a practical little booklet called "Helping Your Preschool Child" that includes activities to encourage school readiness. It's available on request at 1-877-433-7827. You can also order it online.
Pam from Franklin, MA, writes:
Do you have any suggestions for games to play with a very shy four-year-old to help him overcome his shyness?
Some children are by nature quiet, slow to warm up or less outgoing in social situations than others. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Often children who are thought of as "shy" grow up to be thoughtful and compassionate adults. Imagine what our world would be like without these level-headed and caring individuals!
Nonetheless, it's important to understand and respond to your child with consideration for his inborn traits and to help him adjust more easily to particular situations. I applaud you for the support you're giving your son in looking for ways to help him feel more comfortable in social situations.
I can't suggest any particular "games" per se, but here are a few things to try, if you're not already doing so:
Your son's behavioral style or temperament affects how he responds to different experience. It may have been apparent to you when he was a baby and it's part of what makes him special. If you respect and respond to his unique characteristics, rather than try to control or change them, you're working with him, rather than against him and, in the process, you're helping him feel positive about himself. And that's a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Jennifer from Des Moines, IA, writes:
My son is starting kindergarten this fall. He's young and small for his class, but his daycare teachers say he's doing well socially and with rule-following and speaking up. He was assessed and determined to be ready for kindergarten despite his August birthday. Are there special considerations for kids starting school as the youngest? What can I do to be sure he's ready this August?
It sounds like you've already done many things to make sure your son is ready for kindergarten. You've talked with his current teacher, had his readiness assessed, and seem to be an involved parent. The fact that your son is currently doing well, despite being "young and small" within his childcare group, bodes well for his doing similarly well in kindergarten.
Still, it would be a good idea to visit his kindergarten prior to the beginning of the school year and talk with his teacher-to-be or other school staff. This will help you establish a relationship with school personnel and give you a better idea about teaching approaches and curriculum expectations. It will also help you feel more confident as together you look forward to this exciting year.
All children benefit from being read to and spending time with books every day. If you're not already reading frequently to your son, I recommend making this part of your daily routine. You can also point out letters and numbers in the environment, provide paper and crayons or markers for drawing and beginning writing, and talk with your son often about things that interest him. You can also provide opportunities over the summer for him to develop friendships with other children who will be attending kindergarten in his new school.
After school begins, stay in close touch your son's teacher about his adjustment to school as well as his social/emotional and cognitive development. Continual communication with the teacher can help both of you support your child throughout his kindergarten year.
Nima from Atlanta, GA, writes:
My son is almost five years old. He is very bright. His preschool teacher says she has to ask him questions several times before he answers. She says he seems to be in his own world at times. She tells me he is not ready for kindergarten and his school thinks he may have ADD and they mentioned mild autism. My pediatrician disagrees and thinks he is exhibiting signs of being an immature 4-year-old and agrees with me and my husband that our son should proceed to kindergarten and be evaluated in the next year or so if he is having problems there. My question is what can I do to get my son ready for kindergarten? I feel my son is being incorrectly labelled just because his personality and interests and not similar to what is expected in preschool.
No wonder you're confused by the different messages you're getting from your son's preschool teacher and his pediatrician! I think your best bet is to do a little more investigating. Ask your son's teacher if you can spend time observing in her classroom. This will help you better understand how your son responds in group situations and interacts with others. It will also give you a clearer picture of the teacher's expectations, and it can set the stage for future conversations with her and others about what is best for your son. You might also ask to meet with the school's director to clarify some of the information you have already received.
I also recommend visiting the school where your son will attend kindergarten. Talk with the principal or school counselor, find out about the kindergarten program and schedule and, if you can, observe in a classroom. This will give you a better idea about the kinds of experiences your child will have and about his readiness for them.
If you have any concerns at all about your child's development, your school district can provide a developmental screening or evaluation. (By law, every school district in the country provides this service free-of charge.) You do not need a referral from your pediatrician to request an evaluation, but you can ask that the results be shared with him. You could make arrangements for this screening now, rather than waiting until next year. The results can either allay your worry, or pinpoint a developmental delay if one exists. Either way, this information can help you know if there's anything special you can do to help prepare your son for kindergarten. Very best wishes to you both!
Melanie from Pueblo West, CO, writes:
Is there a trick to getting a child of four to want to write ABCs and draw? My son would rather play with toys all day than draw or write, and it concerns me because much of the play is hero-saving-the-day type of stuff. I worry that he is not learning the things he needs to know for kindergarten. How can I make it more interesting to him?
Many parents ask themselves this same question! As the mother of two sons, I can relate to your description of your son's favorite activities. Be assured that his interest in dramatic play is healthy and typical for his age. And, actually, it is helping him develop a number of pre-academic skills, many of which are related to learning to read and write. When he pretends, his actions are symbols for his ideas, just the way written words are symbols for ideas. When he is "saving the day," he is planning, concentrating, and following a storyline.
If there is a "trick" to encouraging children to want to write, it's making writing fun and connecting it to a child's everyday experiences. Here are some ideas you might try:
Draw your son's attention to ways you use writing and encourage him to participate in his own way. For example, you could ask him to help you make a grocery list so you don't forget to buy his favorite foods. He may draw a picture or make letter-like forms - both of which are precursors to conventional writing. If you write a letter to a friend or relative, ask him to put something in the envelope too.
Keep plenty of paper, crayons, markers and pencils handy in different parts of your home. Tuck a notebook and a box of markers in your bag so that they're handy when he's in the car, waiting in line or at a restaurant with you.
Provide writing materials that your son can use in his dramatic play. Police officers write tickets. Doctors write prescriptions. Superheroes have "props" your son can draw onto cardboard. You can also encourage him to make signs for his block constructions or to use sidewalk chalk when he's playing outside.
Hide something in the house and give him a series of written/drawn clues that lead him to it. Then it can be his turn to do the same for you.
Other materials besides paper and pencils can make experimenting with writing fun. Put a mound of shaving cream on a table so your son can "write" with his fingers. A thin layer of sand on a cookie sheet can serve the same purpose. Take turns writing your names or secret messages to each other.
Keep things informal and relaxed. Pushing a child to write before he's ready can be stressful and often counterproductive. Providing lots of fun opportunities to draw and write, helping when he asks, and giving him positive attention and feedback for his efforts is a more appropriate approach. And, of course, expect imperfection along the way. Learning to write is a developmental process.
Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.