First Person

Ask an Expert: Preparing a child for kindergarten

Q. My son is headed to kindergarten in the fall. I’m just not sure he’s ready. What can I do to prepare him?

A. Does anyone sleep the night before the first day of school?  Parents, children, and teachers are all nervous and excited for the changes the next day will bring.  The first day of kindergarten is a major transition point for children and parents, marking our children’s invitation into a new school community.

preschoolersThere is major work to be done in kindergarten. This is the foundation, and we want it to be strong.  While early years of elementary school are a time of social growth and academic exploration, they are also critical in shaping students’ later successes.

As the founder and lead teacher of Rocky Mountain Prep, we’ve been having wonderful conversations with our new scholars’ parents about how we can all support our students during this time.  We’ve condensed these into our top three “Secrets for Success.” Use this summer to prepare your student for success.

1. Don’t just tell children that they are smart.  Praise effort and process as well.  

We become what we think we are.  Children who are told just that they’re smart tend to give up on problems earlier than those who think they are hard workers, persistent, and creative.  Effort is what helps us learn new things and tackle new problems.  When your child writes her name for the first time, don’t just say, “Wow, you’re so smart!”  Tell her what she did and praise her effort:  “You tried so hard to write your name, and you did it!”

If we’re always looking to others to determine our self-worth, we never learn to really value  our own accomplishments.  Instead of saying, “I’m so proud of you,” try saying, “Wow!  You must be so proud of yourself!”   Let your child own her actions.

2.  Read, read, read! 

Books are wonderful gateways to other worlds and ideas.  But, they are not the only things people read!  Think about everything you read in one morning:  your alarm clock, the toothpaste tube, the coffee pot buttons, the microwave, the TV Guide channel, the texts on your cell phone, your email or Facebook page, maybe a magazine or a book.

Your child has been “reading” since birth– as he learns to understand the world around him, he reads your face, the layout of your home, the box of cereal he likes, the street outside.  This is the beginning of literacy: as the educator Paulo Freire wrote, we read the world first, then we learn to read the word.  Point out the things, even pictures, your child already reads at home, and then show him some of the letters that make the words: “Stop,” “Safeway,” “Dora,” “Lightning McQueen.”  In school, we build on this knowledge and help children use symbols to read.

Repetition also helps children understand the rhythm and patterns of written language.  Singing that same song over and over, or reading the same book before bed for two weeks, isn’t just what kids do to drive parents crazy.  It helps children internalize language, so eventually they can make up their own songs and read new books with confidence.  We want them to love language in all its forms: reading, writing, singing, talking, communicating.

3. Teach your child to label her emotions.  

When your child is happy, excited, nervous, frustrated, or angry, point it out!  “You’re really angry right now,” might seem like an obvious thing to say, but children aren’t born knowing how to express what they feel in words.

Giving emotions a name does two things.  First, it helps the child recognize feelings and know how to deal with them.  “I am angry, I should tell my mom and calm down,” is much better than “I have no idea why my body is tensing up when I just want my brother to give me back my toys,” and then having a tantrum or hitting.

Second, it helps the adult recognize feelings and gives you an opportunity to teach your child what to do, rather than just reacting in the moment.  Saying, “You are angry, you should come tell me and then take a deep breath before we talk about it,” also gives you time to not react angrily.  It also shows your child that adults have tools we use for self-control.  It’s hard, but imagine how different the world would be if we could all explain how we’re feeling and take time to think about what to do next.

Ultimately, parents are the experts on their children.  You’ve known them the longest and have taught them so much at home.  You have a lot of information to teach your children’s school teachers about how they learn and what they love to do.  These are our secrets for success, and we’d love to hear yours to keep the conversation going.  As educators, we want to be your partners in helping your child grow academically, socially, and emotionally.  We hope these tips make the transition to kindergarten smooth for your students, and are so excited to welcome them to the world of school.

About the authors

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.