Q: My Kindergartner just started school and is struggling with the rules and expectations that other kids in the class seem to accept more easily. He’s frequently in trouble for minor issues. He gets along well with peers and is a generally good kid… I think he’s just new to the structure since he was home with me his whole life. How can I help shape his behavior to give him the best chance for success academically and socially?
A: Kudos to you for noticing a small struggle before it becomes a big problem! You’re right in thinking that kids come to school with different experiences and levels of preparedness for the culture of a structured classroom. There is also a difference in exposure to authority figures, with some kids being with only a parent the first five years of life, and other kids getting used to many different daycare teachers over the years. Then also the varying amount of peer socialization that kids receive in the early years. All these factors add up to an impressive task for Kindergarten teachers who need to assess and teach to not only different levels of academic ability but also different social ability.
A 20 year study by Vanderbilt University found the following to be the top ten social skills young kids need for school: listen to others, follow the steps, follow the rules, ignore distractions, ask for help, take turns when you talk, get along with others, stay calm with others, be responsible for your behavior, and do nice things for others. Over 8,000 teachers ranked these behaviors as most important in 1989 and again in 2006. They aren’t just “good kid” characteristics, they are skills (in other words, one can learn them) that reduce distraction and conflict between and within people, creating an external environment (the classroom) and internal environment (within a child’s mind) conducive to learning. It also creates a healthy social environment that supports strong self-esteem and a positive self-concept; again, conducive to learning.
Of course, there may be other behaviors beyond those top ten that you think would be helpful to your son in particular or in his specific classroom culture. Maybe you’ve noticed behaviors acceptable at home that you can imagine wouldn’t fly in the classroom. Talk to his teacher to get a sense of what behavior of his causes the most disruption within him or within the class. Try to address issues one at a time and at a reasonable pace rather than trying to whip him into shape like a social skills boot camp. When you address a behavior with him directly, approach him with the same mindset you show in your letter – that you know he’s a good kid, he just doesn’t know how to behave in certain new situations and you will teach him how.
There are many resources with fun and concrete ways to teach social skills (like this one), but don’t forget to model, model, model! This is the best way to help a kid develop a new habit or skill. It’s so easy to forget that we are always modeling for our children. We forget our manners during a mini-crisis at home. We talk instead of listening in an argument. We defend our behavior instead of take responsibility for it. We probably use the top ten social skills more at work, but our kids don’t see us there. Model at home what you want your kids to learn, and get the added benefit of using all those great skills on the people you love most!