Four years ago, when Wisconsin writer Lisa Holewa’s daughter was five, she’d find herself saying things like, “Time to clean up. We need to go to the store.” It sounded clear enough, but somehow, Maya would just look up and then hurriedly go back to whatever she’d been doing. It was the same whether it was bath time or readalouds, and with a two-year-old and newborn around as well her five-year-old, Holewa was nearing the end of her rope. Until, that is, she met Joan Rice, M.A., her daughter’s kindergarten teacher in South Milwaukee. When Mrs. Rice asked children to clean up, they did it. And when Mrs. Rice asked for quiet, quiet always happened. How did she ever pull that off? Holewa set off to find out, and the answers were so rich and interesting that they published a book together, What Kindergarten Teachers Know: Practical and Playful Ways for Parents to Help Children Listen, Learn, and Cooperate at Home.

The main idea? Kindergarten teachers may seem to get inexplicably magical results, but some of their best tools can be passed along. And they work brilliantly at home, too. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that when home and school are giving the same messages, kids tend to surge ahead. In the meantime, mothers can count on a lot fewer headaches, too. So what are these magical tips? Here are three of Rice and Holewa’s favorite tips for parents:

  1. Break down transitions, step by step. “Children need clear endings and beginnings to all their activities,” explains Holewa. But until she watched Rice, she had never walked her children through step by step. Now, she uses the kindergarten way: Announce the transition with a physical cue—a certain chime, perhaps, or a certain clap that says, “time for a new activity.” Then, instead of stopping at that, tell your child what actions to complete. Mrs. Rice, for example, tells her children to “put your markers away and wipe off the table. If you’re not finished right now, put your paper in your pouch.” “Sounds real easy,” says Holewa, "but do we ever think of it? I didn’t.”
  2. Never start directions until you have their full attention. Whether it’s dishes clanking, children racing, or a TV on, most parents get used to talking over din. Resist the temptation, say Holewa and Rice. For your child those distractions are always going to be more compelling than the work of focusing on your marching orders. Instead, explains Holewa, “plan to stand physically near your child, bend down, and get eye contact.” Then remind your child with a multisensory cue (teachers, for example, use tactics like “If you can hear me, put your finger on your ear”). Then, and only then, give your directions. This may seem elaborate, but actually, it makes everything simpler. You only need to give your directions once, and you reduce the chances that your child will need more than one try to get them right, too.
  3. With children, don’t try to be so patient. This sounds like ridiculous advice until you hear the full story. “Patience,” explains Holewa, “is for martyrs,” and parents who practice it alone can just end up building a mountain of resentments. Instead, she says, “You need understanding. Going out to the car? It won’t be as smooth or efficient as it would be for you as an adult. Your child is going to stop and look at that cool rock.” But taking the time to understand this interest pays off big: “It really teaches them to listen to you, because you’re listening to them.”

For Holewa, in fact, Mrs. Rice’s lessons have made all the difference. Her oldest child is now nine, and the family is flourishing. “When I first came to Mrs. Rice’s room,” says Holewa, “I was completely overwhelmed.” Today, she and Joan Rice remain in close touch, bringing their message to teachers and parents. “The thing that’s so neat,” explains Holewa, “is that you don’t have to stop being you! It’s just a matter of finding some tools that work.”