ON COURSE TO THE CLASSROOM Tips from an early childhood educator

by Kari Walker

Being prepared for schools means more than understanding the ABCs.

Children need both academic and social preparation. Local expert Johanna Cole-Pham explains why students need a multi-layer approach to school prep and how parents can make it happen.

“The most important thing [for children] is conversation — talking to them at all times,” states Cole-Pham.

Cole-Pham is the administrator of the REACH Institute, an enrichment center for preschool-age children, and a gifted educator specializing in behavioral modification and differentiation. Her experience with preschool children and education has shown the importance of preparing students socially, ensuring we don’t sell kids short when it comes to human interaction.

“Take time out when you have a chance — when you’re going to dinner or at the park, and notice people and the way they talk or communicate with their children ... what is scary — a lot of times the child will be on a screen playing. The communication piece is missing,” Cole-Pham says.

Communication allows a child’s brain to connect and develop ideas. Parents are doing more than delivering information.

“When you converse with someone you are asking questions, bringing perspective, building empathy — you are doing so many things. Conversation is academic, social awareness, confidence, the joy of learning and communicating,” says Cole-Pham.

In her school, Cole-Pham and fellow teachers are always engaging with their students; asking questions when playing or creating allows children self-inquiry about their intentions and also what others are doing. It’s a simple concept, but the art of effective communication can be a struggle for young children and can carry over into adulthood.

Cole-Pham’s students must develop various public speaking presentations for their peers during the school year — while seemingly silly to think a 3-year-old should stand in front of a group talking about today’s weather, it’s not uncommon for a shy, panic-stricken child in September to flourish into a proud and loud speaker by March. Building confidence and social awareness tie into school readiness as a means to reduce anxieties in children.

Academically, reading to a child builds upon communication skills through asking questions about a book and developing comprehension skills. Cole-Pham suggests parents who may not like reading themselves to approach it positively with their child.

“Read to them to get fluency, and for a joy of reading and learning. Your child will be good at what you focus on,” she says.

While children may seem too young to grasp certain concepts, studies have shown again and again even those in education underestimate children, which could lead to lower expectations.

“Do not ever underestimate the importance of quantitative studies — a lot of us do, research shows even educators underestimate how young children can understand math and logic. Since we don’t expect children can learn [math] until first or second grade, we really don’t start asking questions about math,” says Cole-Pham. “The expectation is they can’t when the reality is they definitely can.”

Teach your child how to guess, estimate, measure and count. “On a walk to the park ask: ‘Look at that tree — is it tall? Do you think you are taller than that tree? Who is taller — mommy or daddy?’ Measuring more or less, using that type of verbiage helps them understand academic verbiage they will eventually be thrown. In kindergarten, if you don’t know these concepts, you’re in trouble,” says Cole-Pham.

Parents are not the only source of influence. Look to extended family as well to enrich even the youngest child’s life. Grandparents can have a special impact on learning by sharing hobbies and talents.

“Communicate what you’re passionate about. Is it history, cooking, hunting, sewing? Talk to them about it because it’s information. They will ask questions and want to learn from you. We need them to learn from you. We’re losing skills like cooking, but what a great opportunity to share your passion with your grandchildren,” Cole-Pham says.