It’s after winter break, and your child is turning over a new leaf: those wide eyed kids who spent the Fall adjusting to big kid school are launching into a new phase of learning.

Back in September, kindergarteners worked on “readiness” skills like “concepts of print,” (the way books and writing work), as well as letters, sounds, rhymes, and some early sight words. In math, students spent the fall on fundamental concepts like the meaning of numbers, their sequence, and what’s bigger, smaller, or equal. Some kids breezed through, but for some, it wasn’t always easy. Some kids may have taken as long as two months—until Halloween—just to feel comfortable in the setting.

But now, in the latter half of the kindergarten  year, all those “readiness skills” are starting to pay off. Virtually all children have settled into their daily routines, and they are proud to march into class, manage cubbies, and sit for rug-time. They can see their progress with letters and numbers, and they’re ready to go deeper. In fact, the weeks from January to March are often so settled and productive that teachers call this the “sweet spot” of the year. Classes are starting to work as communities, and everyone benefits.

So what should you expect, and how can you help? Look for deeper, broader versions of the work begun in fall:

Literacy

In the “sweet spot,” you should expect your child to continue making steady progress. The teacher will watch carefully to see where your child is, and work from there. As a general rule, look for continued constant practice with:

  • Letter recognition and sounds…now including a few combinations, such as “th” and “sh,” and looking at the way vowels can have more than one sound.
  • Simple sight words such as “is” or “the,”
  • Early “sound-spelling” with colorful leveled readers.
  • Longer read-alouds, especially as kids and teachers talk over what the story is about.

Each day, reading practice is also interwoven with writing. Many classrooms, for example, include daily “journal” work, in which a child draws a picture and then writes about it. The fearless spelling in kids’ early literary efforts may seem cryptic to you, but have no fear: this is still a major step forward and you don’t want to get in the way.

Problems? Usually, these started popping up in the Fall, but even if not, make sure you’re in touch with your teacher.  “Generally, I’ve been in touch with parents all along,” says Bonnie Brown Walmsley, kindergarten teacher and author of Kindergarten: Ready or Not!. Since every child is different, she counsels, teamwork is crucial. “Get the information. Get the dialogue going.”  Teachers will try to explore a wide variety of strategies for engaging your child. In her classroom, for example, longtime teacher and writer Deborah Redlo Wing keeps track of behaviors by their frequency, duration, and intensity. She also encourages parents not to be shy. “If parents have a gut feeling, ask the teacher to take it seriously—it’s kind of a kid by kid thing.”

Want to help at home? The experts agree: keep reading, reading, reading! Some tips:

  • Plan weekly visits to the library, and savor that kids’ book section.
  • When you read aloud, reinforce what you’re doing by moving your finger across the text, and when you hit sight words that your child has learned in school, invite him to read them.
  • To build comprehension, also try “picture walks” in which you leaf through the story before reading it, and ask your child to predict what’s coming.
  • If your child brings home little books of “predictable” texts, do invite her to read these to you, and celebrate! This is a major milestone. Finally, don’t forget that family life is full of chances to practice writing. Does your child have a favorite food? Have him write it on your grocery list! Is it Grandma’s birthday? Make sure your child adds to the good wishes on the card. Any pavement near your house? Get some sidewalk chalk and have your kid make those letters as big as her arms. All of it will make your child a stronger writer.

Math

Just as with literacy, children in the “sweet spot” are deepening the Fall’s conceptual lessons, and the results can be breathtaking. Here are the highlights:

  • In counting, kids won't just learn to go up and down the number line, but by 2s, and sometimes even by 5s and 10s, and they’ll start heading towards 100, too.
  • Time terms like yesterday, today, tomorrow, next month
  • Simple money terms and meaning: pennies, nickels, dimes
  • Early addition: using manipulatives to “take apart”  and rebuild a number like ten.

If kids are zooming through all this, your best bet is just to go along with the ride. But now and then, kids do stumble on math. Often, these are the same kids who are struggling with literacy; both disciplines call on kids to start making abstract symbols for concrete realities, and both of them require a complex blend of visual, perceptual, auditory, physical, and emotional skills. “I get worried,” says Colorado teacher and author Connie Leuenberger, “if, by March, a child can’t count backwards from ten; can’t show me twenty things for the number 20; seems constantly inattentive and off task.” In severe cases, a teacher may call for a “student study team” of school professionals to see what’s up.

But no matter what level your child has reached, this is still a great time for parents to help at home. Try this:

  • Although it may be tempting to drill with flashcards, hold back!  At this crucial phase in their development, kids need to understand the relationship between abstract symbols and concrete objects. Instead, counsels veteran kindergarten teacher Cindy Middendorf, remember that “academics can be taught in a non-academic way.”
  • Going to the store? Count your pennies, nickels, and dimes!  Put a pile of ten or twenty pennies on a table, and practice dividing them and rebuilding them with your child, and then write the numbers you have made.
  • Practice often; Leuenberger suggests, “Count with them every night. Give it ten minutes a day. Just do it every day.”

Social-Emotional Milestones

By March, most kindergarteners have made the big leap: they understand that they can follow routines and be part of a classroom community, explains New York-based teacher and author Kathleen Hayes. “Teachers may build increasingly sophisticated routines,” she says, like the use of sign-in books once all kids can write their names.

Sometimes, of course, children still stumble. Now is a crucial time to gather data.  In what settings does your child thrive, and in which ones does she struggle? Does she prefer fine motor to gross motor activities, or vice versa? These issues can represent tricky calls for you and your teacher: sometimes, they’ll benefit from specialist intervention, but often they are just a matter of development. Now and then, of course, they may prove to be more serious and will benefit from specialist intervention. “Recognizing that development happens in spurts may provide the wiggle room that some kids need,” she says. “If you feel like a failure in kindergarten, it’s not good.”

Want to help? Just as you did in November and December, be sure to stay in close touch with your teacher, and support the rules of the classroom. Kids consistently do better with stable routines and expectations, and the more you can do to make their schedules at home calm and predictable, the better. Remember, too, that by this time of the year there’s a sweet spot for parents: it’s a good time to get to know at least a few other folks in the class. Often, kindergarten friendships aren’t just a kid thing…they’re incredibly rewarding between parents as well, and a helpful source of perspective when things seem awry.

Sound big? It is. But concerned as you may feel, remember, you’re not alone. Kindergarten teachers went into this business because they care about kids, and they want the best for you and your family.

Here's a checklist to keep in mind. By March, you're 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 for up to 20 minutes, provided the activity is at an appropriate level.
  • Stay on task during classroom activities, which are getting more demanding.
  • Behave in ways that are friendly and safe on the playground.
  • Recognize most of the letters of the alphabet with their sounds.
  • Identify 5-10 simple sight words, such as “is”.
  • Write his or her own name easily.
  • Read a very simple, short book with pictures and predictable text.
  • Draw a picture and write simple “sound-spelled” words that tell about it.
  • Make a more complicated pattern, such as AABBCAABBC, and explain it.
  • Count forwards and backwards from 1-20.
  • Count by 2’s.
  • Add simple numbers between 1-10, showing you how 2+2=4 things.