by Karen D’Souza who covers early education at EdSource

Going back to school is always a bit of a sticky transition, but this year there’s more to worry about, from teacher shortages to mask rules, than the usual concerns. On top of all that, there are many more children who will be going to transitional kindergarten, or TK, this year because of the expanded age guidelines. These children are younger than the usual TK cohort of almost 5-year-old children who just missed the cutoff for kindergarten.

Paula Merrigan, for one, is up for the challenge. A veteran early childhood educator with 15 years teaching kindergarten and TK in the Castro Valley Unified School District, she’s long been a champion of making transitional kindergarten, a steppingstone between preschool and kindergarten, available to more children.

The universal transitional kindergarten program is being gradually phased in until it includes all the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year. In the 2022–23 school year, children who will turn 5 between Sept. and Feb. 2 are eligible for TK. In the 2023–24 school year, children who will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and April 2 are eligible for TK.

Merrigan recently took a few minutes out from her back-to-school preparations to share some of her tips for parents on how to help their children get ready for TK this year.

What should parents know as they try to support kids who are younger than usual starting TK?

If they haven’t been going to day care or preschool, they will probably have a hard time separating from you. It’s normal, and it may last a few days, but it gets better and easier. Just say your goodbyes and let the teacher or staff handle it. The longer you linger, the harder it is on both of you.

What should parents keep in mind?

Create routines you can stick with. Bedtime should be at a reasonable time for young kids (lights out by 8:30, not starting getting ready for bed at 8:30). Well-rested children perform better at school. Have them set out their wardrobe for the next day so you don’t have arguments over what they are going to wear. Let them have some autonomy. It gives them a sense of power over something small. Teachers don’t care if they come to school in polka-dots and stripes with zig-zags. It actually makes us smile.

Is there stuff parents should practice with their kids?

Give them safety scissors (blunt tip kid scissors) and have them practice cutting magazines, drawn lines, newspapers, etc. You’d be surprised how many students we see who don’t have any idea how to hold scissors, let alone use them.

Practice using a glue stick so they know how to use it in class. Let them create collages with all that cut-up paper and pictures from their scissors practicing. Practice the proper grip with a pencil; small pencils are perfect for their little hands (golf pencil size). Playing with Legos and Play-Doh, or picking up small things like pony beads, beans or small pasta, etc. is great for practicing fine motor skills and building up hand strength.

Should they work on things like early reading or early math?

Write their name with a highlighter and have them practice tracing their name. Talk about the letters in their name so they know what letters they are writing.

They don’t need to be reading yet, but parents and guardians need to be reading to them every single day. It’s great bonding time and shows them you value reading as well.

Math is easier: counting things around the house, talking about what’s bigger or smaller, longer or taller, heavier or lighter, etc. Count with them as they pick things up that they are playing with.

I’m a huge fan of Sesame Street. They are always practicing pre-academic skills on the show in a fun, young kid-friendly manner. That’s a great show to watch with your child, or at least in proximity, so you can talk about what’s happening.

How important is it to talk about sharing or lining up at school?

I always tell my students sharing does not mean, “Give it to me now because I want it!” Sharing means, “May I have that when you’re done using it?” That’s an important thing to explain to your children.

Lining up. Explain you won’t always be the first one in line and that’s OK. I always tell my students we are all going to the same place to do the same thing, so it doesn’t matter where you are in line. Teach them about personal space and to tell others if they are getting in your space, but don’t push someone who is in your space.

What is the hardest part for most kids about starting TK?

It’s the separation from their parents and guardians. Some kids take a few weeks to adjust to their new routine. It’s normal. Eventually, they will rush from their parents to run into class without even looking back to say goodbye. That’s a hard one for parents.

I know I will have crying students and crying parents, kiddos who can’t write their names, don’t know how to hold a pencil, have never held scissors, don’t understand sharing, etc. And it’s OK, that’s why I’m there.



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