Illustration by michael sloan

Parents are often concerned about whether their child will be ready for the transition to kindergarten. They often focus on whether children have acquired skills such as learning the alphabet, writing their name and being able to count to 20.

But it turns out that those aren’t the most important skills your child needs to start kindergarten. Instead, decades of research reveals that the skills children need most are to be able to relate to others, to be independent, to persist in challenging tasks and to inhibit impulsive behavior.

How can you help your child learn those skills? Work with them on sharing toys, have them help make their own lunch and have them practice taking turns talking and listening to others at the dinner table.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, it is actually these foundational social-emotional and self-control skills that predict children’s success in future grades and in lifelong outcomes, including higher educational attainment and better health outcomes.

But perhaps one of the most often overlooked steps a parent can take to help ensure their child’s success in kindergarten is to facilitate a strong student-teacher relationship. Researchers have learned that a child’s relationship with his or her kindergarten teacher can have a lasting impact on the student’s school success, particularly children who may struggle in kindergarten academically and/or socially.

A strong teacher-student relationship doesn’t happen overnight. It is built over time through multiple moment-to-moment interactions. Nevertheless, parents can take an active role in helping facilitate the development of a responsive, sensitive and warm teacher-student relationship.

That means don’t save interacting with your child’s teacher for a field trip or when an issue arises. Instead, send a note about an accomplishment your child achieved outside of school or something you noticed that your child is doing at home that they learned at school.

When my daughter Molly was in kindergarten, for example, her teacher used a parent-teacher notebook system that went back and forth from home to school every day. At first, the notebook was little used. But over time, I began using the notebook to connect both me and Molly to her teacher. I would write to her teacher about fun things we did on the weekend or about something Molly said happened at school. In turn, her teacher asked Molly to tell her about it and then wrote about the exchange for me to read. When I was worried that Molly might not be making friends, I used the notebook to ask her teacher to let me know what she thought. Her teacher watched and then helped Molly connect to her peers and wrote to me about how Molly was playing with others.

Building that relationship paid off. When Molly struggled in first grade with reading and writing, she thought of her teachers and school tutors as sources of support that she could count on, who valued and respected her, and who were invested not only in what she learned but also in her as a person.

Kindergarten can be a hard transition for children and parents alike. But developing children’s social and emotional skills and connecting children with their teacher will help make school, and really all learning, a lot easier for them as they go through life.

Amanda Williford (Col ’96) is a research assistant professor at the Curry School of Education’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.