I have been working in early childhood education for many years now (more than I care to admit!) and one of the questions that I frequently get asked by anxious parents is, “What should I be doing at home to help my child be ready for school?” (or some variation of that)
I find this question to be one of the most difficult ones to answer, not because the answer is hard, but because parents are expecting a complicated response. When I tell them, they often look at me (sometimes with some disappointment) and then say, “yes, but what about…?” usually referring to some extra class, or computer game/program, or tutoring…. etc.
In today’s constantly moving world, parents are often focused on giving their child some sort of advantage as they head into the fast paced and competitive world of kindergarten (that’s me being sarcastic by the way) so the natural response is to shell out the big bucks and start over loading our little ones (and ourselves) with as much as we can. I can understand this and completely relate, I’m a mom too! But oftentimes, while we are busy shuffling our children from one class to another or engaging in some other extra-curricular, we lose sight of one of the simplest things we can do to make a lasting difference in our child’s cognitive ability and that is …. Get ready for it…..TALK TO THEM, TALK TO THEM, TALK TO THEM!(I know, not as glamorous as you were hoping for)
Communication skills are perhaps some of the most important skills that we can have, and yet we may not do enough to help our young ones learn how to effectively communicate since they may not have the language to do so. Studies have found that language input prior to age three is significantly associated with both future language acquisition and cognitive development (Zimmerman et. al, 2009). But don’t worry, language between ages 0-5 is learned through hearing, not instruction, so you don’t have to sit down and teach this like we do with older children (Gramling, 2015). Rather, we can build language and help communication by engaging in language rich experiences. What does this mean you ask? It means to talk to them about whatever strikes their fancy and yours! It also means letting children hear the same word in different contexts which allows them to develop a deeper understanding of the word. Take for example the word “cold.” You may say, “I’m cold” and “this drink is cold” and “cold-hearted.” These are all ways to use the word cold, but in different contexts, thereby helping your child comprehend the word’s complete meaning.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to use diverse vocabulary and complexity in speech. Research has shown that the quality of speech by parents is related to size of vocabulary in children (Hoff, 2003) and the quality of speech by parents predicts later language learning (Rowe, 2012). Finally, we also know that proficiency in speaking and understanding is essential for future reading and writing skills (Gramling, 2005). In other words, talk, talk, and talk some more and don’t be afraid to use bigger words and more complex sentences. Of course, this also means that we as educators at Southwood Learning Center must also use our abilities to build language requisition and communication skills. As cute as it is, we can all leave the baby talk for puppies!
Some simple ways to increase language input are probably things that you are already doing like reading to your child, but we can also engage in storytelling, narration, and descriptions but it cannot be adult to child only, let your child create stories (even if they’re only a few words long). Avoid close-ended questions that need “yes” and “no” answers. Instead try asking them open-ended questions like, “tell me about….” If that seems too advanced, be more specific like, “what did you build today?” or “what did you have for lunch?” Don’t worry too much if the answers are often “nothing.” That is probably the most common response from children, you can model for them by telling them specifics about your day and this will help them respond in kind. And don’t just talk about the concrete. Give them words to help them identify emotions. If little Susie is crying, help her identify the feeling, “you’re crying, it looks like you are sad” (frustrated, angry…etc.). Giving her the words to identify how she is feeling will help her learn to deal with her emotions in a healthy manner.
So… does this mean no more extra-curricular activities? No, as a parent you do what works best for you and your child, just don’t forget to get so caught up in whatever is going on around you that you don’t have time to really talk to your child. Language development is perhaps one of the best things you could ever do to help your child be more successful and it’s completely FREE!