Back to School Tips for Parents: A Grade By Grade Guide
Here's your grade-by-grade guide to help you and your kiddo feel ahead of the game this school year. Ready, set, you’ve got this!
Chitchat about numbers. Have your kid count the apples you’re unpacking from a grocery bag, play cash register together, or look for ten toy cars around the house. When parents engage their kids in math activities like counting and comparing quantities, the result is an improvement in early math and language skills, report Purdue University researchers.
Practice table manners. “At school, kids learn to wait until everyone is seated before eating their snack,” says Jenny McSweeney, a pre-K teacher in New Providence, New Jersey. “Doing this at home for meals can make her feel more confident at school.”
Role-play conflicts. “This is the year kids wallop each other with zingers like, ‘I’m not going to be your friend anymore!’ ” says Carol Saldi, a pre-K teacher in Staten Island, New York. “Brainstorm positive ways to respond.”
Teach the coat “flip trick.” Lay it open on the floor, face up, tag to toes. Arms go in, then “flip” it over the head and presto, jacket’s on and your ETA at school is on time.
Label everything. Another back to school tip for parents: Let no sweatshirt go un-Sharpied! After you label his water bottle, pack it inside a labeled zip-top bag, says McSweeney, to prevent a soggy backpack when your kiddo doesn’t fully close the bottle.
Pre-K Is All About...
- Separating from you (sniff!): Kids are transitioning into a longer day and are often their best selves at school, so they wait to let out all their emotions with you at home.
- Discovering academics: As kids strengthen their fine motor skills and memory, they’re excited to draw pictures of what they’ve experienced or imagined, and they’re interested in longer stories.
- Friendships becoming more important: You’ll hear a lot about “best friends” this year, as your child gravitates to certain kids in his class, instead of having you make his playdates.
Practice first-name writing. Instead of using all capital letters, which are common in preschool, help your rising kindergartner write his name with a capital letter followed by lowercase letters.
Don’t stress over “backward” letters. Using b for d or p for q, or writing letters upside down, is typical until about age 7.
Sound it out. “If I were to require one thing before school, it would be for students to watch the LeapFrog: Letter Factory video,” says Robin Fitzgerald, a kindergarten teacher in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. “It reinforces letter-sound knowledge in a catchy way.”
Use car time. “Read signs out loud together, especially those you encounter often,” says Fitzgerald. “Oh, look, T-A-R-G-E-T, Target!”
Build confidence with scissors. Kindergarten teachers expect kids to have some experience using them. To help your child hold them, draw a smiley face on the thumbnail of the hand he uses to hold scissors and tell him he should see the smile at all times while he’s cutting, says Diana Prkut, a Seattle kindergarten teacher. After he gets the hang of it, have him try to follow straight lines and then cut out big circles.
Embrace extra help. Whether it’s for speech or social skills, kids typically love the attention, teachers say. No stigmas attached!
Kindergarten Is All About...
- Embracing routine: Your top priority is to get your child comfortable at school. The academic breakthroughs will follow.
- Advocating for himself: Teach your child to raise his hand to say he needs to use the restroom or that he doesn’t feel well.
- Learning to tie shoelaces: Until your child masters this skill at home, send her in Velcro sneakers to prevent tripping. Re-tying at school can be stressful at first.
Don’t automatically spell words for your child. Instead, ask, “Hmm, how do you think it’s spelled?” says Erica Bohrer, a first-grade teacher in Lindenhurst, New York. “Suggest stretching a word out to hear the sounds.”
Try not to stress about her reading level. “We start assessing at the beginning of the year, and kids are always at different levels, from reading fluently to just beginning,” says Kirsten Richards, a Chicago first-grade teacher. And being a “good reader” is more than just learning to decode words and spout them off—you want your child to understand what she’s reading and enjoy it.
Seek out “just-right” books. “First-graders often want to make the jump from picture books to longer chapter books before they’re ready,” says Travis Jonker, a school librarian in Dorr, Michigan. “The bridge between them is Early Reader books, which often get overlooked.” Jonker likes What Is Chasing Duck? and all the other books in Jan Thomas’s Giggle Gang series, the Narwahl series by Ben Clanton, and any book recognized by the Geisel Award, which honors top beginner books.
First Grade Is All About...
- Using a word wall: Many teachers have one in the classroom with frequently used words. You can re-create one in your kitchen or play area to help reinforce tricky words.
- Writing the weekend news: In class, your child may be asked to write about what he did on Saturday. If he gets stuck, remind him it’s not about correct spelling but writing a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Putting stories on paper: Save the adorable—and often hilarious—observations he brings home. The creative spelling will charm you. “Thrust” us.
Have mini convos. There’s no need to skill and drill at home, says Lynsey Burkins, a second-grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio. Chats about what you’re having for dinner or the new house being built down the street can develop your child’s communication skills in a natural way.
Be your family storyteller. “I identify as an African American. When I was growing up, my parents and extended family understood the art of telling a story,” says Burkins. “Carrying on that tradition has changed the game for my second-grade son, who’s struggled to read.” Listening to stories increases a child’s ability to comprehend the sequence of events, which can engage young readers, she adds.
Look beyond fiction. “Some parents ask me, ‘Do charts and stats count as reading?’ Of course they do!” says Burkins. “They still get kids to follow the sequence of a story.” She likes Animals by the Numbers, by Steve Jenkins, and the Super Sports Infographics series, by Jeff Savage.
No time to read the entire book tonight? NP! If you can get her to read two or three pages out loud while you juggle a toddler, great! Then ask, “What just happened?” and “What was the problem?” Those questions get your child thinking about what the text is saying and enhance her reading comprehension, says Anna DiGilio, a secondgrade teacher in Briarcliff Manor, New York.
Second Grade Is All About...
- Asking questions: Nurture your child’s inquisitiveness by putting down your phone and really listening to him. You’ll be amazed by the conversations you can have.
- An introduction to to keyboarding: Kids love being old enough for technology, and learning to type helps with writing.
- Realizing she isn't an "upperclassmen": But she’s proud she’s no longer in the youngest grade either!
Encourage critical thinking. “Because third graders go from learning to read to reading to learn, they’ll be asked to show text evidence to support why they think a main character is kind or what they believe the main idea of a story is,” says Marnie Lowery Coggins, a third-grade teacher in Syracuse, New York. Practice this at home with your child—one of you finds the main idea and the other a character trait.
Keep reading picture books! A back to school tip for parents is to look for picture books with slightly more challenging, heftier text, says Coggins, like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, by Judi Barrett, Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg, and anything by Patricia Polacco.
Don’t bash math. A good attitude is crucial to raising a numbers-confident kid. Stanford University researchers tested young kids and found that a positive mindset about math problems correlated with stronger function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, while students did an assignment.
Know your school’s position on cursive. Many districts have dropped it, since keyboarding makes the skill less essential. “If your kid’s into it—writing in cursive can be calming, like coloring—get him a practice book online,” says Coggins.
Third Grade Is All About...
- Grasping the fractions: Math facts are building up to this next step. Use a pan of brownies to reinforce fractions at home. Ask your kid to cut them into halves, then fourths. Then eat them!
- Trying other types of stories: Honor that your child only wants to read about dragons, while still exposing her to other books. Ask your school librarian for ideas, and visit your local library together. (And have patience!)
- Taking a standardized test: Most states have some kind of testing in the spring for kids this age. Remind your child that the test is a measurement of how his school is doing. Encouraging him to just do his best will go a long way!
4th and 5th Grade
Empower him with real tasks. In fourth and fifth grades, students get to experience being leaders at school by participating in assemblies or being a reading buddy to a kindergartner. To foster your kid’s confidence that he’s ready for this independence, give him growth opportunities at home, says Chicago fourth-grade teacher Laura McCammack. “Teach him how to safely help in the kitchen and do laundry.”
Let her flounder a little. “The biggest thing I tell parents of kids this age is to let them fail,” says Rachel Castaneda, a fourth-grade teacher in Cary, North Carolina. “It takes a leap of faith, but this is a safe environment to learn the consequences of not following through.” So the rare homework assignment left behind at home is fine to bring to your child. “But if it happens more than that, leave it there,” says Castaneda.
Keep reading together. “My students’ favorite time of day is the last ten minutes, when I read aloud to them,” says Castaneda. Even if your 10-year-old is almost as tall as you are and you can barely squeeze onto her twin bed together, do it. As for reading genres, try historical fiction. Books like Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, cover important social issues that can lead to great convos between you and your child.
Fourth and Fifth Grades Are All About...
- Revisiting activities: If your child shows interest in basketball, don’t remind him that he hated it at age 6. Kids change, so it’s not too late to take up a new extracurricular. On the other hand, he may want to drop an activity if he’s feeling overwhelmed.
- Early puberty kicking in: Yup, suddenly your child may seem so grown up, and if you haven’t had the deodorant chat yet, now’s the time. Emotions and sleep may be out of whack, too, so be sensitive to that.
- Trusting your child: Resist the urge to tell her how to do her homework. Her ideas matter, so let them shine through!
This article originally appeared in Parents Magazine as 'Rock the School Year.'