Pop into a typical kindergarten, and everything looks so neat and inviting. There’s almost always a rug to sit on, a bunch of books, little chairs near kid-level tables for drawing, cozy nooks full of hands-on manipulatives, and special activities. It all looks so…well…effortless.
But check with your child's teacher sometime, and you’ll soon discover that it’s anything but! Behind the scenes, most kindergarten teachers usually spend at least one hour, and sometimes two or three, preparing for every hour of classroom instruction. Those cute mittens with the shoelace sewing strings? Every one of them must be cut out and sorted ahead of time. Those cool field trips to see pumpkins and ducks? Hours and hours of planning and fretting. Which is why, if you’re a kindergarten parent, many teachers will warmly invite you to volunteer—as much as you can.
In fact, while it’s true that a big part of kindergarten is building kids’ independence, the year is also one of the most parent-intensive. Many parents look back on it, years later, as a special time when they got to know the teacher, met other children and their families, and saw key aspects of the way the whole school worked. Kindergarten gets kids off on the right foot for elementary school. But it can get parents off on the right foot, too. They key is getting involved. Not sure where to begin? Here’s some advice from two seasoned pros: Jan Harp Domene, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, and Joan Barksdale, a practicing kindergarten teacher for more than 30 years.
1. Sign up! Early in the year, often at Back to School Night, your teacher will let you know what’s needed. Listen, watch…and try to do at least something. This doesn’t have to mean you’re there every single minute; after all, an important goal in kindergarten is to help your children learn to be away from you. Whether you're a working parent who can't possibly volunteer on a regular basis, or a stay-at-home dad with hours flexible enough to volunteer once a week, there's a way for almost everyone to do something. Making time to help shows your child that school is important to you. Do try to “step up to the plate and get involved," Domene says, "You’re setting the tone for your child’s future!”
2. Find a match with your time and interests. Remember: there are lots of different ways to volunteer, and you don’t need any special skills. “Whatever they help with,” says Barksdale, “parents make a big difference. Like paint. I can’t do it right unless I have a parent there. Someone’s got to be there to help with the big paper and smocks, and I can’t be there while I’m handling the rest of the class.” You don't need to be on-site to help in the classroom. Often, for example, parents in Barksdale’s class will cut shapes at home, or paste booklets, making whole lesson plans flow the next day. There are one-time events, like field trips. Or, if your schedule keeps you from daytime activities, consider offering to keep a class list updated, or maintaining an email list and helping the teacher by sending out updates and reminders over the year. These tasks may take as little as an hour a month--but they bring teacher gratitude that lasts the whole year.
3. When you help, be prompt and reliable. For all their sweet calm when things are going well, kindergarten kids can get quite fussy when schedules don’t work. Teachers really appreciate your promptness—even five minutes can make a big difference for a short-fused kinder kid. Similarly, adds Barksdale, “if you need to change your schedule, everyone will understand, but do try to give the teacher as much advanced warning as possible.“
4. Don’t worry about disciplining kids. “Of course, we never want any child to be rude or anything,” says Barksdale. “But it will happen sometimes.” This is not because of parents, she is quick to add, but because kids are kids. Don’t worry about settling an argument between students yourself, or calling other parents; just tell the teacher promptly and discreetly, and she’ll handle it.
Want to help out, but don't have a lot of time on your hands? A little can go a long way. The benefits of even a few hours of volunteering to help your teacher, says Barksdale, are immense. Don't allow the fact that you can't make a weekly commitment keep you from getting involved.
Aside from the benefit to the school, participation has other rewards, says Domene. Volunteering gives you a unique opportunity to understand your child’s evolving education. “My personal philosophy on this started 32 years ago when my oldest child started kindergarten,” she says. “I will never allow a stranger to educate my child.” If you volunteer, she says, you won't have to. You'll develop a strong relationship with the person who teaches your kids, and when issues or concerns arise, you'll have a partner to help you solve them.
To be successful in school, kids need strong teachers. And volunteering helps, plain and simple. Starting in kindergarten, Domene counsels, “you need to support that teacher and develop a really healthy relationship.” After all, she says, “This is your child’s future. You only have 13 years before they graduate. It’s not a lot.” So, kindergarten parents, there’s no time like the present. Go ahead and jump in!