Try this blueprint for boys.
Getting your son off to a good start in school remains the best way to help him secure a bright future. To find the optimal setting and work with his teachers to create opportunities for success, follow these suggestions.
- Seek out a boy-friendly preschool. Ask the director to define the school's philosophy. Since boys tend to learn best by doing, an "academically rigorous" approach is probably not as good a fit for your child as a "play-based" environment. To get a true picture, visit the classroom in action. "You want to see the boys building things and looking happy and productive," Dr. Thompson says. Ideally, the teachers will find fun ways to introduce skills to help children develop the fine motor skills they'll need for handwriting. For instance, Judy Ronzani, director of the Sonshine Patch Preschool in Janesville, Wisconsin, has the boys thread bolts and twist small screws onto a wooden board that has holes drilled in it. "It's a fun, boy-friendly way to develop the muscles that are used in writing," she says.
- Ask about recess. Free play gives kids an opportunity to burn off excess energy while fostering important social connections. It also helps boys, in particular, develop self-control and can help boost their memory and language capacities, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a child-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. While many districts are reducing or even eliminating recess in the name of academic progress, Dr. Thompson recommends that schools expand it to twice daily to benefit boys' learning.
- Let your child follow his passion. Whether it's dinosaurs, trucks, or baseball, odds are your son is fascinated about something. Nurture his hobby by checking out books on the subject as well as visiting museums and libraries, building models, and watching documentaries. Your son will pick up valuable language, math, science, and social-studies knowledge, and he'll become a more self-motivated learner. You could even suggest some ways that the school might be able to incorporate his special interest into the curriculum.
Susan Giurleo, whose son, Alex, was struggling in preschool, ultimately decided to switch him to a different program, where he's doing well. She's impressed by his new school's flexible approach, including the fact that once his teacher found out that Alex loves monster trucks, she brought in books about them to read to the class.
- Give him downtime. Though you want to encourage your child's education at home, resist the urge to practice reading or letter-writing right after school. After a long day in the classroom, boys need some time to run around and play. "Let your son climb, throw, bike, or shoot hoops -- whatever he needs to do," Thomas says. Giving him a chance to move will also increase his alertness when it's time to work.
- Resist early labels. High-energy, emotional boys are easy magnets for the ADHD label. But doctors and psychologists warn that it's often difficult to accurately diagnose this disorder in children under 6, since their attention span at this age isn't naturally long anyway. If your son's teacher expresses concerns about his behavior or attentiveness, ask her to be specific. Squirming during a long lesson isn't nearly as concerning as if he displays an inability to follow directions, constantly talks out of turn, or displays dangerous, impulsive behavior (such as running into the street after a ball during recess). Your child's doctor can help you separate normal boy behavior from a potential problem and, in the case of ADHD, can recommend a helpful course of action to minimize its effects.
- Consider waiting an extra year. "Redshirting," the practice of holding off for an extra year before starting kindergarten, has become an increasingly common way to give kids an academic and social edge. And it might make perfect sense for your son. Talk to his preschool or day-care instructor to gauge whether he's poised for the next step. If he plays nicely with other children; displays an interest in books, letters, and numbers; and can focus on a puzzle or a drawing for at least five minutes, he's probably ready. Should you decide to wait, don't worry about his falling behind his peers. "Education is not a race," Dr. Sax says. "The goal isn't to see who can do something first but to develop a love of learning. If that means allowing a 5-year-old boy another year to lie on his back and look at the clouds, so be it."
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.