A New Kind of Kindergarten Readiness Checklist For Familie

Why the Best Kindergarten Readiness Checklist Is Not a Checklist

by ParentPowered contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education

A five-year-old child I know recently walked me through the magnetic letters on his fridge. In between bites of dinosaur chicken nuggets, Jayden touched each colorful plastic letter as he named it. A, B, C, D…He was accurate until he got to O, which he called Q. He also identified the P as an R.

The question is: is this child ready for kindergarten?

He hasn’t mastered one of the key skills you’ll find on an old-school kindergarten readiness checklist—correctly identifying all the letters in the alphabet. But is Jayden’s kindergarten readiness really best assessed by a checklist?

As an educator, you probably have families in your community asking for kindergarten readiness checklists. Families are rightly wondering two things: What does my child need to be ready for kindergarten? and How can I help my child be school ready?

A multi-ethnic group of daycare children sit close together on the floor, with their legs crossed and their arms around one another, as they pose for a portrait. They are smiling and enjoying their time together.

In response to these questions, many schools provide a checklist of skills like naming letters, speaking in complete sentences, identifying basic shapes, completing a simple puzzle, and holding a pencil.

These are examples of discrete, constrained skills. With skills like these, a child has either mastered it or she hasn’t, and once she has, there’s not much left to do. However, as we discussed in our last article, these types of skills are not the most important for school readiness. According to research, the most important things children need for school readiness are approaches to learning (think listening, persistence, and basic emotional self-regulation) and promising development—not mastery—in a handful of key domains (physical health and motor development, language and literacy, social emotional development, etc.).

In light of the research on what really helps children thrive in school, and in keeping with ParentPowered’s commitment to strengths-based and equitable family engagement, we’re presenting a different way for educators to support families and children in kindergarten readiness.

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Strengths-based and equitable kindergarten readiness

Educators who are committed to equity in education will want to think about kindergarten readiness in ways that will set all children up for success.  

Focus on what really matters

For many children, kindergarten is the first time they enter a formal community of learners. Therefore, kindergarten readiness skills are those that enable them to participate in and benefit from this community. Language skills to communicate, basic self-help skills to manage their physical and emotional comfort, and listening skills to follow simple directions and cooperate with others make possible the acquisition of specific academic skills. For example, it’s difficult to learn math skills until you have bathroom skills under control. 

Look at individual growth over time

Every child develops differently! For this reason, it’s important to look at how strengths, interests, and abilities change over time rather than stopping at one snapshot of what the child can do during a quick 15-30 minute assessment. Schools that use a standardized assessment should ensure it’s valid, reliable, and appropriate for all children, including children from all cultural, linguistic, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and children with disabilities or learning differences. Culturally responsive kindergarten readiness assessments acknowledge and value the diverse ways in which children learn and demonstrate their abilities. This approach involves using assessment tools and strategies that align with children’s cultural contexts, languages, and community values.

Use holistic observation

Some old-school kindergarten readiness assessments require children to come into an unfamiliar environment (e.g. the school they will attend) and perform artificial tasks on command. These often fail to capture children’s true abilities, and are disproportionately harmful to children whose parents haven’t paid for private tutors to help children “make the right impression.” Instead, children should be observed in various settings, including play-based activities, social interactions, and problem-solving situations. Allowing children to demonstrate what they can do on their own terms allows their unique abilities and interests to shine.

To learn more about strengths-based, equitable kindergarten readiness assessments, check out this brief from the First 5 Center for Children’s Policy

Real-life “readiness” in 5 domains

With these perspectives in mind, let’s take another look at Jayden’s kindergarten readiness skills. This time, we’ll take a different approach to a traditional kindergarten screening by observing the child’s strengths throughout the day, focusing more on unconstrained skills like behavioral skills and social skills. 

Here are some seemingly non-academic things Jayden did which happen to demonstrate promising development in the 5 school readiness domains used by ParentPowered Ready4K (which align closely with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework).

Approaches to learning

Before Jayden eats his breakfast, he takes pride in helping feed the family dog. This demonstrates a sense of responsibility that will serve him well in his new school community.

Out on the playground, he wrestles with some kids he knows well but plays more gently with other children, indicating a level of control and management of his behavior depending on expectations.

When another child takes his new action figure and throws it off the top of the play structure, he comes to tell me, his babysitter. Here we see that he can seek adult support in managing strong emotions.

Social and emotional development

Although Jayden is still too small to reach the monkey bars, he enjoys fun games of tag and lava monster, demonstrating that he can engage in and maintain positive interactions with other children.

Close up of a grandfather taking his granddaughter to play some basketball in the park

He also happens to be a very fast runner, and he knows it! When he says “Watch how fast I can run!” I know he’s expressing confidence in his own skills, which contributes to a strong sense of identity and belonging that he can bring to kindergarten.

Language and Literacy

After Jayden tires me out at the playground, we take refuge at the public library, where Jayden devours book after book on his favorite subject: dinosaurs. He doesn’t read the text on most of the pages, but he enjoys flipping through the pages and is curious to find new books. The essential skills here from a literacy perspective are knowing how to find the first page of a book and turning the pages from beginning to end.

When it comes time to give a birthday card to a friend, Jayden can write some version of his name as a signature, even if some of the letters are backward, out of order, or missing.

As for his listening skills, Jayden can follow two-step directions, like when I ask him to first wipe his hands and then take his snack out of his backpack.

Physical Development

Back at home, I invite Jayden to join me in an art activity. Our supplies are limited—white printer paper and scissors—but I remember making paper snowflakes out of just these materials when I was a kid.

High angle view of elementary age boy with Down Syndrome coloring with female therapist during play therapy session.

While I carefully fold the paper and cut intentionally placed holes that will multiply out into fractal designs, Jayden cuts each piece of paper into hundreds of tiny pieces. His use of the tools is not what I had imagined, but there’s no denying that he is able to hold scissors, proof of fine motor skills. As we clean up the paper fragments, we reflect on how great he is at running, jumping, and bouncing a ball, all good indications that his gross motor skills are developing.

STEAM and Play

After dinner, he shows me his wind-up cars. He tries different techniques to see if they’ll make the cars go even faster, demonstrating a penchant for experimentation. He makes a prediction that bigger paper airplanes will go farther than smaller ones, indicating a burgeoning use of scientific inquiry. As he’s getting ready for bed, he arranges his collection of stuffed animals by shape and then by color (“sorts objects”? check!).

By the end of the day, Jayden has demonstrated strong skills for kindergarten readiness without taking a single academic test. Of course, what I shared above is not an exhaustive list of ways to show evidence of development in the key domains. I shared my personal experiences with this dinosaur-loving kiddo to show how children can demonstrate their readiness for kindergarten through everyday activities.

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The case for a different kind of checklist

In a previous article, we shared some high-level insights from the research on what really prepares a child for success in kindergarten: 

  • Children learn a lot in kindergarten. To be “prepared” for kindergarten, they simply need to be able to participate in a community of learners and benefit from instruction.
  • Approaches to learning are just as important as specific academic skills.
  • Kindergarten readiness is the shared responsibility of families, schools, and the community.
  • School readiness is a journey, not a destination.
  • This journey or learning process can look different for every child.

A kindergarten readiness checklist is about evaluating a child’s performance on discrete skills in one moment. But true school readiness is a developmental process of interrelated language skills, motor skills, emotional skills, and more that starts at birth and unfolds over time.

In light of this, the best way to ensure children have essential skills for school success is not to use a kindergarten readiness checklist of their skills. Instead, we propose a checklist of ways that caring adults can support children’s healthy development over time.

Below are some key approaches that families and early educators can take to create environments in which children can take a joyful developmental journey together with caring adults.

What can parents and caregivers do to support kindergarten readiness?

Research has shown that parents can better promote their child’s language and literacy learning by supporting the development of unconstrained rather than constrained skills (think reading aloud and telling stories rather than drilling the alphabet or quizzing the child on facts).

Parents do not need to instruct or assess mastery of discrete academic skills. Their job is to provide a loving, supportive, caring, and language-rich environment with plenty of opportunities to play and create. When caregivers provide exposure to rich experiences, mastery will come in due time.

An Asian father helps his preK daughter practice math skills with building blocks at home.

Below is a checklist for parents and caregivers. All these best practices are a lot to remember at once, which is why ParentPowered’s text-messaged family engagement program breaks down the complexity of kindergarten readiness and responsive parenting into bite-sized pieces that are delivered consistently over time. Below each recommendation, you’ll find a related sample week of ParentPowered messages, which also give specific examples of fun and simple ways parents can put these recommendations into practice.

Encourage play and exploration

Through play, children engage their imagination, problem-solving abilities, and creativity. Play allows a child to practice critical thinking and decision-making skills. When children are allowed to safely explore, their curiosity is rewarded and they develop a sense of wonder about the world around them. This promotes a love for learning that will benefit them in the classroom and beyond.

  • FACT: Water can lead to super summer learning. When kids play with water, they learn to experiment and observe. This is key to science and math.
  • TIP: Bring a pot of water outside. Can your child find 3 things that float? Try leaves, sticks, and container lids. Drop each into the water to test it out.
  • GROWTH: Keep playing with water! Now that you’ve discovered some materials that float, try combining them to make a boat. Ask: Where’s the boat going?

Develop and follow routines

Routines create structure and predictability, which helps children develop self-regulation skills and a sense of responsibility. Consistent daily routines for waking up, mealtimes, and bedtime help children understand expectations and establish healthy habits. Having routines in place during the early years can help with navigating the transition to school.

  • FACT: Change and uncertainty can be hard for young children. Creating routines that can stay the same helps kids feel more secure and in control.
  • TIP: When your family experiences change, create a ritual that can stay the same. You might read a book to your child each night or sing the same song when your child wakes up.
  • GROWTH: Keep sticking to routines as best you can. In the morning, try always doing things in the same order. Draw a picture of each step in your routine to help your child remember.
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Read to your child

Children learn language through hearing adults talk to them, and books (such as these 8 books recommended by the ParentPowered team) expose children to richer vocabulary that goes beyond everyday experiences. The foundations of literacy are laid long before a child can read on her own. Telling and acting out stories are also great ways to promote narrative skills. Talking about books with your little one fosters a positive attitude toward reading that will serve them as lifelong learners. And this is a great place to incorporate the science of reading for parents and students in the home environment!

  • FACT: Ask questions as you read bedtime books to help your child stay focused on the story and understand what it’s about. Questions are key to comprehension.
  • TIP: As you read a story, pause to ask about who, what, when, where and why: “What just happened? Who did it? Where do you think the characters will go next?”
  • GROWTH: Keep asking questions as you read. After you read a story, ask, “What was your favorite part? Why did you like it?” Talk about your favorite part too!

Have back-and-forth conversations

From a social-emotional perspective, this shows children that you care and that their ideas matter. From a language perspective, everyday conversation teachers children about the pragmatics of turn-taking in communication.

  • FACT: When you ask your child questions throughout the day, you help them develop communication skills that are key for success in school and life.
  • TIP: Start your day with a silly question. In the morning, ask, “If you could ride an animal to school, what animal would you pick? Why?” Share your answer too!
  • GROWTH: Keep asking questions to prepare 4K! After school, ask about your child’s day: “What was the silliest thing you did today? What was the most exciting?”

Foster responsibility and independence

Plenty of moments of everyday life hold opportunities for children to make meaningful contributions. Giving children a task they can do on their own, like putting on their pajamas at night, builds their confidence to try new things at school, too.

  • FACT: When children have helping jobs at home, they develop a sense of responsibility that will prepare them to be part of a classroom community.
  • TIP: Give your child a helping job that benefits the whole family. Can they use a damp cloth to wipe down the table after meals?
  • GROWTH: Keep giving helping jobs. You’re preparing your child 4K. Encourage your child as they help: “Your work is helping all of us to stay healthy!”

Promote physical health

Engaging in regular physical activity not only enhances motor skills but also improves cognitive function, concentration, and self-regulation, which are essential for success in the classroom. Nutritious eating and adequate sleep also contribute to a strong and resilient body. Finally, regular dental check-ups ensure that children have a healthy mouth, reducing the risk of tooth decay and other painful dental issues that could distract them from learning and socializing in school.

  • FACT: A big part of keeping children healthy is seeing the doctor when they aren’t sick. Schedule a checkup and get up to date on immunizations.
  • TIP: After school, talk about what will happen at the appointment. Mention tools the doctor will use: S/he’ll use a stethoscope to listen to your heart
  • GROWTH: Keep preparing for a checkup! Empower your child by encouraging him/her to be a doctor. S/he can give a checkup to a favorite stuffed animal!

Take advantage of community resources

Playgrounds, parks, zoos, and museums are wonderful places filled with learning opportunities.

  • FACT: The playground is perfect for summer…and learning! Bring a towel and a book. Find a secret spot (under a slide) to spread the towel and read together.
  • TIP: At the playground, ask your child to look for things they think will float (leaves, sticks, rocks). Collect them, take them home, and see if they float.
  • GROWTH: Keep learning at the playground! Try letter tag with playground equipment. Who can be the first to tag something that starts with ssss (swing, slide)?

Talk about feelings

Showing them how to take deep breaths or move their body to manage strong emotions can set children up to solve problems and be resilient in the face of challenges they might face at school.

  • FACT: Being able to name feelings like happy, sad and angry helps children understand their emotions. This knowledge helps kids calm down when they’re upset.
  • TIP: During dinner, play ”guess how I’m feeling.” Make a happy face and ask, “Can you guess how I’m feeling?” Try sad and excited and then have your child try.
  • GROWTH: Keep naming emotions to prepare 4K. At bedtime, ask your child to share how they’re feeling using words. Can they make a face to show the emotion too?
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Follow your child’s lead

By observing and understanding a child’s interests, strengths, and natural inclinations, adults can tailor their interactions to promote optimal learning experiences. This approach encourages children to actively engage in activities they find meaningful, promoting their cognitive, social, and emotional development while building a strong foundation for kindergarten readiness. By respecting and supporting a child’s individuality and preferences, adults can empower them to become self-directed learners and confident problem solvers.

  • FACT: Your child has grown so much in just one year! And it was hard work. When you take time to celebrate, you build their confidence and pride.
  • TIP: After school, cuddle with your child and think of 5 things they’ve learned to do this year: “You learned to ride your bike, you’re starting to read…!”
  • GROWTH: Keep celebrating your child’s growth. Now ask about the things they’re excited to learn and do next year. Write them down and post them up. HOORAY!

Above all, it’s important for educators and families to remember that kindergarten is the beginning, not the end, of lifelong learning!

Resource Roundup

Educational research has shown which skills are particularly important for a child in kindergarten. Read the Overdeck Family Foundation’s Road to Readiness Report to find out what the research says about which kindergarten skills are key.

The Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center offers a Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework for working with families in the early years to prepare the child for kindergarten.

This research digest on the impact of parent engagement on learner success outlines 6 main categories of family engagement and provides practical ideas within each.

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About the author

Curran Mahowald is a former high school language teacher turned education research advocate. In addition to having worked at ParentPowered, she has also designed parent-facing informational materials at Oakland Unified School District and currently works on improving national research-to-practice infrastructure at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Curran holds an M.A. in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and B.A.s in Linguistics and French from the University of Southern California.

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