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What it means to be ready for kindergarten: Demystifying school readiness

What is school readiness?

A quick internet search for “School Readiness” will prove that no one quite agrees on what a child needs to be able to do to be “ready” for kindergarten. Is it about how high you can count? Using scissors to cut on a curve? Writing your name with a capital letter at the beginning?

This lack of consensus is often reflected back from the research, with “School Readiness” being only vaguely defined. Even the phrase “School Readiness” itself has come under scrutiny of late because of the feeling that it unfairly places the burden of being ready for school on the child alone, when in reality it’s on all of us adults to provide the experiences a child needs and deserves to get ready for school.

So what does it mean to be “ready for school?” School readiness is about being available for learning—learning is, after all, the point of school, right?

What makes a child available for learning? On a foundational level, having physical needs met is so important. A child that is eating well, sleeping well, and in good overall health will be available to learn. Think about it: we don’t focus well when we’re hungry, tired, or sick. Our children are no different.

The importance of Executive Function

What about on a cognitive level? What does the brain need to be available to learn? This is where Executive Function comes in. Executive Function often gets compared to an air traffic control system, but in the brain. It refers to a set of cognitive skills that allow us to prioritize competing tasks, filter out distractions, set goals, and stay focused. Executive Functioning skills include:

Working memory: the ability to hold information in your brain so you can use it
Mental flexibility: the ability to adapt to changing rules and priorities
Self-control: the ability to resist impulses

Think about the busy setting of a classroom with 30 five-year-olds, and it’s not hard to imagine why these skills are so important. A child with poor executive functioning is going to have a hard time staying on task and may even end up a distraction for other children.

But there’s more! Executive Function is also closely tied to the development of social-emotional skills. Executive Functioning skills have to develop for pro-social skills to develop. (Pro-social skills are things like conflict resolution, perspective-taking, turn-taking, etc.) Research shows that young children who act in antisocial ways participate less in classroom activities and are less likely to be accepted by classmates and teachers. Even as young as preschool, teachers provide these kids with less instruction and less positive feedback. This results in children who like school less, learn less, and attend less.

Play-based all the way

So how can you ensure your child develops their Executive Functioning and pro-social skills? Play. These are all skills children can learn through play and everyday experiences. Making sure your child has a play-based early education is one of the most important things you can do to get your child ready for K-12 schooling. Programs that promise academic rigor or specific outcomes will likely not prepare your child for learning as well as a program that supports their creativity, imagination, and social-emotional skills.

Meredith Downing leads curriculum development at Wonderschool. She taught preschool in a variety of settings including the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, DC, and received her master’s in education from Stanford University’s Learning, Design & Technology program.

Find a high-quality play-based child care or preschool program near you.

Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.