Early Childhood Development That Prepares for School

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The first five years of a child’s life lay the foundation for future failure or success. Bit by bit, he accumulates the knowledge and abilities he will need to be a complete, independent adult. From the first moment in the womb when he responds to his mother’s voice, he is processing and reacting to information given to him. The first five years of a child’s life contain a dramatic transformation from a helpless infant into a self-aware first grader. During that time, his brain develops more and faster than at any other period during his life. What skills will we equip him with to prepare him for this big step toward independence?
There are five basic areas I would like to consider as we prepare our child for first grade: physical, emotional, social, moral, and academic. Each of these skills develops gradually and at different rates in each child. God has created every individual with a peculiar set of gifts and challenges. Very likely, your child will excel in some areas and struggle in others.
Physical Abilities
Physical abilities are divided into gross motor skills and fine motor skills. These skills are important not only for muscle development but also for the brain processes they foster. Gross motor skills refer to the movement of large muscle groups. This involves activities such as crawling, jumping, skipping, kicking, etc. Fine motor skills refer to the ability to make precise movements with the fingers. We often call this eye-hand coordination. Examples are as simple as a baby grasping his mother’s finger and as complex as a preschooler cutting a paper snowflake. Children love to do these things and spend much of their playtime developing these skills. While remarkable progress is obvious from one year to the next, these skills take time and repeated practice to develop. At every age, a child needs a safe environment to practice. Clear the floor when he is learning to walk. Make sure the path is wide and open before letting him go on his bike. Riding requires incredible coordination of balance, momentum, and direction! Yes, he will fall and hurt himself, but the next time he tries, he will do better. Success is achieved through repeated failure. Provide a time and place for him to scribble, draw, color, cut, and paste. Compliment his work! A four-year-old can create incredible creatures!
Emotional Maturity
A child is born with very little emotional control. He expresses exactly what he feels. A toddler pitches a fit when he isn’t allowed to have your book. A two-year-old will flop on the floor and scream when he is denied a cracker. Parents are responsible to teach a child how to properly express his feelings. Proverbs 16:32 says, “he that ruleth his spirit [is better] than he that taketh a city.” We cannot remove our child’s emotions; nor would we want to. Emotions - even negative emotions such as fear and sorrow - are natural and right. A child must learn first to control his actions in spite of his emotions and then to communicate his emotions properly to others. Instead of hitting his brother in a fit of rage for stealing his toy, he must be taught to control his anger and ask an authority to set things right. This applies to all negative emotions: fear of the dark or unknown, anger at real or perceived mistreatment, disappointments for not receiving something expected, frustration in difficult circumstances. A child eventually will learn that all of these are a normal part of life. Parents who equip their child to properly handle his spirit in the face of life’s challenges give him a priceless gift.
Parents also need to give their children a proper level of self-confidence. Parents who consistently criticize their child’s efforts communicate that he is a failure. A child needs confirmation that he is loved and valued for who he is. He craves the approval of his parents and strives to earn compliments. Insincere or undeserved compliments may actually backfire and cause him to base his value on whether he receives praise and not for doing a task to the best of his ability.
Social Skills
Before a child is ready for school; he will also need to learn social skills. God made us social creatures. We enjoy being with other people. To have working relationships, we need to follow some basic rules. First, a child must learn that other people have desires and preferences too. His favorite game is not everyone’s favorite game. Sometimes he needs to play a game he dislikes. He needs to learn to share and take turns. He doesn’t always need to be at the front of the line. We call it the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Second, a child should learn to allow others to talk. This is easier for some children than others. Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.” Teach your child to take an interest in what others know. Teach him not to dominate the conversation but to allow others to add their perspective. Thirdly, a child should learn to use good manners. A simple “Please,” “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry” goes a long way to making smooth relationships in the classroom. If you teach your child to use common courtesies with his siblings as he grows, it will be a habit by the time he enters first grade. Lastly, teach your child to care for himself. Teach him to blow his nose, tie his shoes, and tuck his shirttail in. His teacher may need to remind him occasionally, but he should be accustomed to good hygiene before he is old enough to venture out on his own.
Moral Character
A child’s moral character is the most important area a child needs to develop before going to school. I see two reasons for this. First, the early years form the child’s view of his world. He establishes relationships with his parents and siblings. He understands how he fits into the social structure of his family. He comes to understand that he is a unique individual. How do his siblings treat him? How do they respond when he is kind or mean to them? As he explores his world and its boundaries, he begins his life-long adventure of learning. Secondly, his concept of right and wrong creates the framework for how he will approach life. Does “No” really mean “No”? Does he always need to obey direction? What will happen if he does what he wants to do? He begins to develop a perspective of the nature of authority. While he will eventually come to understand that not all authorities behave in the same way, it is in childhood that he realizes that authority is either a force to be respected and obeyed or a tool to be manipulated and used. The framework that you build for your child will be with him for life. Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” There are exceptions to this general statement. However, those who walk away from Truth will always carry its knowledge in their conscience.
The primary purpose of our schools is to educate our children in a God-centered atmosphere. The teacher will need to discipline at times, but that is not his primary responsibility. A child who has a healthy respect and appreciation for authority frees the teacher to teach. By the time a child enters school, he should be in the habit of obeying promptly. He should take responsibility for his actions. He must be honest, even when it may hurt him. He must be used to a conscience kept clear and pure by consistent discipline.
Academic Achievement
Lastly, we come to academic skills. In some ways, these skills require the least amount of energy from a parent. The teacher’s job is to teach. If a child has learned to listen and control his spirit, he will be able to use his time in school to great advantage. Children love to learn. Most of their play activities center around the skills that they are learning. Stacking blocks can teach them to count and identify the shapes/letters/numbers on each block. Simple puzzles teach them to identify and match shapes. A Memory game helps them to recall the location of a picture. Crayons help them to identify the colors of objects in the real world. Identifying the letters of his name and tracing them brings particular excitement. Playing house sparks the imagination in acting out the role of someone other than himself.
Giving your child regular chores also develops important learning skills. Most chores incorporate various aspects of academics. Something as simple as setting the table may include multiple skills. He may need to count the number of place settings, so he has the right number of cups. You may ask him to set the table in a sequence, so nothing is missed. As he does these chores, he develops thought processes that will help him in school.
As I consider the wonderfully complex process of growing and learning, I echo the words of the psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” God bless you with wisdom as you prepare your toddlers for school.