5 Things to Know on the First Day of Kindergarten

Social skills, like getting along with others, are first-day essentials.
Social skills, like getting along with others, are first-day essentials.
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In the realm of childhood milestones, starting kindergarten is up there with potty training and first steps. It's where children learn some of the most basic skills they'll use throughout their lives and it marks the start of what will hopefully be an illustrious school career.

That doesn't mean kindergarteners begin school as blank slates, though. There are skills they need to enter the classroom with, ones they've spent five years learning at home with you or with other caretakers -- things like sharing, listening and playing well with others. Social development is a prime marker for kindergarten readiness and greatly increases your child's chances of success.


And then there are the skills that are more academic in nature, and these can sometimes be overlooked by parents. After all, the kid is 5 years old! Certain academic skills, though, are just as important as the social ones. Kindergarten teachers will expect that their new students already know particular things at the start of the year, and if your child doesn't, he or she may end up lagging behind. Not a great way to start that illustrious school career.

So, which skills should your child walk into kindergarten with? There are quite a few, running the gamut from spoken language to color recognition, and they vary in importance. A handful of them, though, are fairly essential.

Here, five of the most important things your child should know on the first day of elementary school. Luckily, these objective, core abilities are pretty easy to assess.

The first one lays the groundwork for what's arguably the most important skill required for success in life ...

5: Letters

No, being able to identify all 26 letters is not essential (or likely) at this stage. What is important for a brand-new kindergartener is the knowledge of what at least a few letters look like, which shows an understanding of the significance of those shapes. Without that understanding, it's a lot harder to begin the pursuit of literacy -- and that's a major component of the kindergarten curriculum.

Basically, if your child can pick out, say, B, D and Z, he or she is in good shape.


Even better in the letter realm, but not strictly necessary, is the ability to recognize (and maybe even write!) his or her own name, and maybe recognize a few "sight words" -- simple words he or she sees often in daily living, like "stop," "go" or "hi."

Next, a different kind of readiness ...

4: Numbers

Counting out coins is good practice for school.
Counting out coins is good practice for school.
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While your soon-to-be kindergartener probably won't be learning to add and subtract this year, he or she will be learning those skills next year, in first grade; and kindergarten math is about laying the groundwork for that [source: Miller].

He or she will be definitely working with numbers in the course of the year, and it's important to walk in on the first day knowing the basics. Counting to 10 is a big one, as is knowing whether a collection of, say, marbles or checkers contains one, two, three, four or five of those marbles or checkers.


If your child also understands the basic concepts of more and less, he or she is in an excellent position to succeed in kindergarten math.

Next, a skill you've probably been watching develop for years ...

3: Sorting

This activity should be nothing new to you and your little one. Sorting objects is a skill that starts to really take off around the age of 2. By 5, it's usually pretty well-developed, and it's important your child can sort effectively and with confidence by the start of the kindergarten year. It's a foundation principle of pattern recognition, which in turn is a foundation principle of math [source: PISD].

On the first day of school, your 5 year old should be adept at sorting objects by color, shape and size, and at least beginning to understand how to group by traits like texture and weightiness.


Next, it's about communicating ...

2: Speaking

If your child is going to be involved in class, she'll need to be able to communicate effectively.
If your child is going to be involved in class, she'll need to be able to communicate effectively.
Jose Luis Pelaez/Iconica/Getty Images

Every child develops language skills at a different rate. Sometimes, kids who are extremely adept physically lag behind in language, and vice versa. It's nothing to be concerned about -- and at home, it actually doesn't matter that much if sentences are choppy and words aren't pronounced quite right. Parents typically know what their children are saying as if they're speaking perfectly.

In kindergarten, though, it matters. A child who can't communicate effectively to strangers is going to have trouble getting his or her point across to teachers and peers, which can leave a child on the outs not only in terms of classroom learning but also when it comes to play.


From the very start of the kindergarten year, children should be able to speak in mostly complete sentences and pronounce words correctly enough for a stranger to understand them. Effective communication is critical for real involvement in class.

And finally, a skill your child probably can't even walk in the school door without ...

1: Going Potty

To the uninitiated, the opening days and weeks of kindergarten may not seem all that different from preschool or daycare -- playing, reading stories, running around outside, sitting in tiny chairs for fairly short periods of time ...

But even in those opening days, there's at least one dramatic and non-negotiable difference: Kindergarten teachers don't do diapers.


Your child must be potty trained before the first day of school. Accidents happen, of course, and there's no problem with that. But being able to take care of his or her own bathroom needs effectively and consistently is a necessity for any child starting kindergarten, so if your 4 or 5 year old is still having trouble with it, you may want to step your potty efforts up a notch.

Hopefully, this all sounds doable -- or, better yet, already done. If your child is lacking in any of these areas, though, that illustrious school career is in no way lost. You can work on the potty, the language, the sorting and the handful of numbers and letters in the months leading up to the start of school and make some remarkable progress.

You may be surprised to see how quickly your little baby can become a kindergartener.

For more information on kindergarten readiness and child development, including tools to help you teach at home, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 5 Things to Know on the First Day of Kindergarten

As a mom writing about kindergarten readiness and curriculum, I found myself constantly surprised in the course of my research. With a toddler at home, we have several years before we'll start school, and yet in gathering all of this information, I found that some kindergarten skills are ones my child already has -- and others are ones I can scarcely imagine her possessing. For me, this article reinforces the idea that every child really does develop at a different pace -- that whether he or she measures "ahead" or "behind" or "just right" seems more a matter for textbooks than for practice. As with almost everything else in parenting, the kindergarten experience varies from child to child and can be exciting, stressful and/or a huge surprise -- hopefully somewhat less the latter after reading this.

Related Articles

  • Child Development Tracker: Mathematics. PBS Parents. (May 27, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/parents/childdevelopmenttracker/two/mathematics.html
  • Geiser, Traci. "10 Kindergarten Readiness Skills Your Child Needs." Education. (May 22, 2012) http://www.education.com/magazine/article/kindergarten-readiness-secrets/
  • Gisler, Peggy and Marge Eberts. "Kindergarten Readiness Checklist." Family Education. (May 22, 2012) http://school.familyeducation.com/kindergarten/school-readiness/38491.html
  • Kindergarten readiness: Is your child ready for school? Baby Center. (May 22, 2012) http://www.babycenter.com/0_kindergarten-readiness-is-your-child-ready-for-school_67232.bc
  • Miller, Maria. "Kindergarten math curriculum." Home School Math. (May 27, 2012) http://www.homeschoolmath.net/teaching/kindergarten.php
  • National Vaccine Program Office: Immunization Laws. CDC. (May 22, 2012) http://www.hhs.gov/nvpo/law.htm
  • Prekindergarten. Subject Area Interactive Lesson Online. Pasadena Independent School District. (May 27, 2012) http://www.pasadenaisd.org/sailon/gradePK.htm
  • What Does My Child's Stage of Development Have to do With His Readiness for School? Gesell Institute of Human Development (via Education.com). (May 22, 2012) http://www.education.com/reference/article/does-my-childs-stage-development-readiness/