We are getting into that time of the year when our office is flooded with calls from parents who are deeply concerned that their child’s transition to school has started off, frankly, not so hot!
On a personal note, my daughter just began kindergarten and we are in a similar boat. A month into the school year, I found out that she was far below expected levels in pre-literacy skills. Whoa… not what I expected to hear.
After receiving the letter, I had many thoughts. I felt like I had completely fallen short as a parent and a professional. How did I not know that? Being the testing psychologist that I am, I of course gave my daughter an informal comprehensive evaluation prior to kindergarten to ensure she was on track. She was going to be a young kindergartener, and we received mixed messages about sending her early. I have never been a parent who was overly concerned about my daughter’s learning. She seemed to learn letters easily, and my goal for preschool was more for social development than anything. But after that letter—well, I started to question my skills in general.
And then I started to worry, as any good parent would. I worried that her “falls far below” was a red stamp on every aspect of her future from kindergarten to adulthood. Anyone else with me? I know many of you might not have had the feedback that your child was behind academically, but you may be getting feedback about your child’s behavior. Maybe your child started off kindergarten hitting, kicking, screaming, yelling, or cursing. Perhaps your child is older and just isn’t meshing with his or her new teacher. Maybe your child isn’t making new friends, is having trouble focusing, or is not able to complete homework at night.
Whatever the issue, there are a few things in our power that we can do to help:
1) Take a deep breath and try to challenge those negative thoughts.
When you get that first call from the school that your child bit or hit another child, it’s easy to get into the trap of envisioning your child as a sociopath headed towards jail. The truth is, many kids will have behavioral challenges in school, especially in kindergarten. The vast majority of those kids grow out of that physical acting out pretty quickly. And even if your child is not learning quickly, your child is likely just responding in an impulsive manner and is not actually trying to harm another child.
Children need to be taught appropriate behaviors and social skills just like they need to be taught reading and math. And on the subject of reading and math, I’ll try to remind myself that falls far below at the beginning of kindergarten is not a failing of mine. It is a failing of her preschool… Kidding. It isn’t anyone’s failing, and it doesn’t help to focus on the past and regret. Your child will only benefit from you focusing on the present and what you can do now to grow those skills.
2) Communicate with your teacher.
Your child will have greater success if you are communicating about your child’s strengths and needs throughout the school year. Maybe your child has a diagnosis of ADHD, and you opted to not tell the new teacher and just see how it goes. Now that your child is in trouble frequently for not paying attention or hitting others, it may be time to be a little more open with the teacher about your child’s needs. It is never too late. Often, educating the teacher about your child’s needs will only help them have more understanding in the future. If your child is struggling with behavior, talk to your teacher about possibly developing a positive behavior sheet that you can use to increase daily communication between parent-teacher and provide positive consequences at home for a job well done at school.
3) Collect data.
Yes, you heard me right. We LOVE data! We like to be scientists and data collection is a large part of determining how precisely to help. Right now, I have a spreadsheet open with data on my daughter’s letters, sounds, and pre-literacy skills. I want to know what areas are hard and to support her in those areas. I also want to be continually monitoring her to make sure that what the school and I are doing is actually helping to close learning gaps. This is also true for behaviors. Let’s say your child continually gets referrals at school for hitting and kicking.
Ask your teacher to start collecting data on where it is happening, what time of day, with which children, what happened before the incident, and what happened after. You can then work as a team to find any patterns where your child needs a little extra support. It also tells you the frequency of these concerns, so you will know if your intervention is working. For instance, if your child is only getting in trouble at recess during tag, that is going to give you a lot of information on where to target interventions at school. In this case, you might have the teacher review behavioral expectations every day before recess and then give your child feedback and reinforcement if your child meets those expectations each day.
4) Intervene early.
Many teachers make recommendations to wait and see. At the very beginning of the school year or kindergarten, this makes some sense. Children just starting out in school have to learn the structure and routine. Some children are not used to working for such long days and may still be tired in the afternoons resulting in more behavioral challenges. Academically, this can be true too. It takes some time to get back into the routine of school. Again, in kindergarten, many children are coming in with a wide variety of skills and with varying levels of prior learning experiences. Giving some time to see how your child responds to instruction makes some sense.
However, if your child has a diagnosis already, or you are seeing consistent patterns of behaviors, it is better to start the process of intervening to ensure your child’s success. If academics are low, talk to your school about additional interventions or tutoring they offer. If behaviors are the issue, talk to your teacher and the psychologist at your school about implementing a positive behavior support plan or finding a social skills group where your child can be systematically taught skills.
5) Consider if an evaluation is needed.
If you are in a position now where your child has been struggling for some time despite receiving additional interventions or academic/behavioral support at home, it may be time to consider completing an evaluation. We usually recommend this for behavior when those behaviors are having a negative impact on your child’s functioning either at home, school, or in the community.
If your child is struggling at school, you can write a letter requesting this testing. Remember to always put these requests in writing, as the school is then held to specific legal guidelines. Remember that if testing is done through the school, the school is only going to give you information on if your child is eligible for special education services. They typically do not give specific medical diagnoses. Thus, you may also wish to find a psychologist or neuropsychologist who specializes in evaluating children if you want more specific and detailed recommendations tailored to your child’s diagnosis.
6) Take action.
If your child has a diagnosis, then it is time to take action by following the recommended interventions that are available. This means, you might need to carve out some extra time for tutoring, educational groups for parents, or treatment for behavior or social skills. This can sometimes mean extra time when you are already stressed about your child’s progress, but it is better to intervene early and start building those skills now than to wait and cross your fingers. If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, check out our evidence-based ADHD treatment guide. Remember to take another deep breath and visualize your child’s future in a realistic and positive way.
7) Focus on your child’s strengths.
It is easy to get caught up in focusing all of your energy into what your child is not doing well. But you also need to remember to foster your child’s strengths. For instance, if your child shows a strength in math, make sure that you are also spending time working on math skills and providing your child with challenges and lots of positive feedback. If your child is athletic, continue to do after school activities that help them develop these skills.
When you are trying to address an area of challenge, it is easy to focus all of your time on improving that area. But it is important to your child’s self-esteem to be engaged in activities and skills that make them feel competent and strong. Self-esteem is doing well, and knowing you’re doing well. It is also important that children have a positive outlet for their energy. So even if your child is struggling in school, continue those extracurricular activities that they love and feel passionate about.
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, check out our online parenting course, Creating Calm. We talk about all things ADHD and give you simple, science-backed tools to support you and your child!
How has your child’s transition to school been this year?
Drop an emoji in the comments below and let us know how it is going!