Now and then, it happens by mid-September. But usually, it starts in October and stays through December or so: an exciting time when kindergarten kids start to find their bearings in “big kid” school. As leaves turn and mornings take on a chill, those kinetic former preschoolers start getting down to the business of letters, sounds, numbers, and group citizenship that is kindergarten curriculum.

By Thanksgiving or so, just about all students have typically figured out their daily routines. They know when and how class starts. They know which coats go on the blue hooks and which cubbies store lunches and which ones art supplies; and they usually even remember this from day to day. While friends may change from day to day—this is kindergarten!—they understand how to manage most of the time on the playground and in class group work. And all these daily habits feel solid and soothing enough that the whole room starts to gain a sense of unified focus.

If your child is in this phase, you’ll probably know it just by feel. Mornings will get easier, because there will be less anxiety about what to expect. After school, you’ll almost always hear happy stuff about the day. And in school, the teacher will see a child who quite calmly fits in and steadily moves ahead. Unless, of course, things aren’t going so well. It happens in just about every class, and often that’s just because kids this age grow and change at such different rates. Or maybe there’s been a change at home, such as a new baby. Sometimes, however, it’s also a sign that something’s up.

So how can you support your child at this "getting down to business" time of year? Here are some tips from teacher experts. As December rolls around, look for:

Literacy

In today’s standards-based kindergarten classrooms, you can expect plenty of attention to early reading and writing. By late October, most kindergarteners will be past those first-month jitters, and teachers will be starting extensive practice in identifying letters and sounds. The class may chant and sing songs at rugtime; listen to rhyming stories and talk about them; and they will also start writing the letters that make each sound. They’ll start to learn very simple sight words like “is” or “as,”—words that Debra Redlo Wing, 30 year teacher and co-author of “Welcome to Kindergarten, a Month-by-Month Guide to Teaching and Learning,” calls “popcorn words, because they pop up everywhere!” Be aware: early literacy is an extremely complicated stage, calling on kids’ ability to see, hear, handle pens and pencils, put letters into sequence, and make sense of what comes out. This is the time, says Wing, when “we’re bringing the children along. Do we expect them to read predictable texts? Not yet!”

At this stage, your best bet is to stand by proudly and congratulate your child on every letter sounded out and every word written, no matter how zany the spelling. It’s a wonderful time for your child to be a mad scientist of language; there will be plenty of time later for coherence and neatness. If you do find, however, that your child consistently resists picking up pencils or markers; and especially if your child does not seem to be able to connect letters to sounds, even with lots of practice, pay attention. The fall months of kindergarten are a time to observe carefully, along with your teacher, and offer support. Many children, especially those young for kindergarten, may just need a little more time to develop, and will catch up just fine. But if your child is really struggling, now is the time to ask careful questions: what experiences seem most challenging? In what settings does your child thrive?

Math

In kindergarten, kids are starting to make a fundamental leap in their thinking, as they move from concrete reality—five gummy bears, say—to abstract numbers—in this case, 5—that represent them. Teachers refer to this concept as 1:1 correspondence, and because it is so very important to all subsequent math, you can expect to see lots of practice activities in the room. Kids will count blocks, days, leaves, chairs…you name it, again and again and again. They’ll also compare numbers—which is bigger? Smaller? And finally, they’ll often use blocks or beads or other small items to explore patterns. These activities will turn up in first and second grade as well, but with higher numbers. At this point in kindergarten, most teachers will focus just on the numbers from 1-10. If all this seems, well, elementary to you, it is! Parents often worry that these activities are too simple; but the constant repetition is intentional. These early math concepts need to be more than familiar to kids; they need to be automatic.

And what if your child seems to be stumbling? “If there’s a child who can’t count past five in November,” says Wing, “who confuses numbers with letters, and doesn’t have one to one correspondence, that’s definitely a red flag.” Now is a good time to work side by side with the teacher to identify exactly what your child can and can’t manage. Extra practice at home may be very helpful, but do make sure you’ve checked with your teacher so that the materials you’re using will support what’s happening at school.

Science and Social Studies

While states do list standards for these subjects in kindergarten, the most central focus will be literacy and math.  Look for science and social studies topics integrated with core lessons.  In October, for example, many classrooms study apples and how they grow.  They'll read books about trees, fruit, and farms (expanding social studies concept); and then eat apples and compare their color, size, and taste (using graphs that address both math and science).  Check your school's curriculum to see exactly what units will be covered, and when.  In general, however, core science skills emphasize kid-friendly versions of the scientific process, such as sorting and categorizing, making guesses and observing what really happens.  In social studies, the holidays will be an important focus, as kids start to place themselves in the context of their community over a yearlong calendar.  A final social studies concept that is always covered in kindergarten--and will be repeated for years to come--is learning the concept of rules, and why we need to follow them in our world.

Want to help?  Spend time with your child in the beautiful fall weather.  Sort the leaves she jumps into; make predictions about the weather; and talk about what the holidays mean to you.  In kindergarten, science and social studies are right here and now in a child's back yard, and the opportunites for fun are virtually endless. 

Social-Emotional Milestones

By the end of December, most kindergarteners are making a lifetime leap: they are coming to understand, as New York based teacher and author Kathleen Hayes, author of “Kindergarten Routines that Really Work,” explains that “they aren’t just alone. They have a role in a cooperative group and they take turns.” In the classroom, this means that they can work in small group “centers” and negotiate with others. Conflict is a natural part of this process, Hayes explains; but what’s important is that kids can work it through. As a related issue, kids are also expanding their capacity for focus. By around Thanksgiving, they should be able to still and listen to the teacher. Of course, cautions Hayes, that doesn’t mean that “sitting on the rug for an hour and a half meeting” is to be expected. After all, these kids are still nearly two decades away from a college lecture hall! It does mean, however, that “the rules should be internalized by most kids.” Coats occasionally dropped on the floor? Not a problem. Screams and yells when the teacher requests that they be picked up? Not OK.

If your child is still struggling with these issues, now is an important time to work side by side with your teacher to figure out what’s up. The issue may be purely developmental—with a few more months, plenty of kids will settle right in. But this is also a good time to observe: is your child struggling with any academic issues? Social or physical ones? Talk with your teacher so that home and school send consistent messages. It’s especially important for you, as a parent, to stand by the teacher’s rules. Yours may be different, of course—most families, for example, don’t need to raise hands at the dinner table. But in a classroom, these skills are a huge deal. Your child needs to manage impulses, and choose wisely. “Even if you hate the rules,” counsels Hayes, “They’re still the rules.” You can also help by explaining the reasons behind the rules. Hayes gives the example of a common “no talking in line” rule. Kids benefit when you don’t just tell, but explain, “We don’t want to make too much noise…we don’t want to make it hard for the kids in their classes to work.” 

As the weeks go by, do keep track of your child's learning, while remembering that kids  learn at different speeds; what’s most important is that you see progress. Above all, says Constance Leuenberger, Colorado-based teacher and author of “The New Kindergarten,” “Teachers are there to help.”  Some children will learn steadily; others may seem to stall out and then will advance in a burst.  If it’s Thanksgiving and your child is still consistently struggling with routines, you don’t want him to end up being labeled negatively either by peers or by staff. Don’t hesitate to talk with your teacher—she’ll be just as eager as you are to solve the problem. How fast should you expect change? The answer is as varied as kids themselves. “If you’ve got a kid throwing chairs,” says Hayes, “there’s something seriously wrong, and you can’t wait around.” But in most cases, steady teamwork and gradual improvement will be the winning solution. Quite often, kids just need a little time; if they need more help, your rapport with the teacher will make all the difference. And when your child does settle into a “sweet spot,” do be sure to enjoy the delicious ride.

A late December checklist: Most of the time, your child should be able to:

  • Start the school day smoothly: say goodbye to parents, hello to teacher; put coat and lunch away, join class startup activities.
  • Sit and listen during rug time without touching others or talking out of turn
  • Stay on task during classroom activities
  • Behave in ways that are friendly and safe on the playground
  • List several letters of the alphabet with their sounds
  • Identify 3-5 simple sight words, such as “is”
  • Write his or her own name
  • Open a book, identify the cover, and turn pages correctly from left to right
  • Draw a picture and write a few simple “sound-spelled” words that tell about it
  • Make a simple pattern, such as AABBAABB -
  • Count from 1-10 with 1:1 correspondence between a number and an object
  • Explain to you how some numbers are “bigger” or “smaller” than others.