The first day of kindergarten is exciting, nerve-wracking, hectic, tear-jerking and adorably photogenic all over the country. But New York City kids (and parents) face a unique set of challenges when headed to school for the very first time.
I have three children, ages 16, 12 and 8. That means I’ve been through NYC kindergarten three times. (I’ve also been through the admissions process three times, and wrote an entire book, Getting Into NYC Kindergarten, of tips and tricks.)
Over the years, I’ve learned five things that all families must know in order to have a successful transition from pre-K (public or private) into elementary school (public, private, charter, gifted, magnet, religious; like I said, it’s NYC, things are different here).
Check out the list below and learn from my mistakes, rather than your own.
1. Teach Them to Operate Those Buttons and Zippers
With all the talk about academic readiness and standardized testing, parents often focus on making sure children know their letters, numbers, colors and shapes before setting foot in a kindergarten classroom. But what do teachers really wish you'd prep for the summer before kindergarten? Teaching kids how to put on all their own clothes.
My oldest son started kindergarten two months after turning 5. He could read Magic Treehouse chapter books unassisted. But he didn’t know how to work his belt so he could go to the bathroom at school! The teacher told me I should have taken care of that. She’d take care of the reading.
For other kids, it’s tying their shoes or zipping their coats or buttoning their sweaters. If kindergarten teachers have to help dress each child, going out for recess and wrapping up class suddenly takes up precious classroom time. Make sure your child is prepared, so their teacher can focus on other things.
2. Make Sure They Have a Caregiver's Phone Number
If anything happens at school, the administration has all your contact information. But for many kindergartners, this will be their first year taking the bus home—alone. And here's the thing about NYC school-buses. That arrival time they give you? It’s an estimate. No, it’s a suggestion. The drivers have their routes, but if a few kids aren’t riding that day, they may deliver your child as much as 20 minutes earlier than scheduled.
Under those circumstances, it’s vital that your child have your cell phone or other contact info memorized, so the driver can call you and let you know they’re waiting. (If they are, in fact, waiting. Sometimes, they might arrive early, see no one at the stop, turn around and take your child back to school.) Having a number to call for a parent, sitter or neighbor might be the only thing that prevents your needing to schlep all the way back to school to pick them up.
If you can, try to get the driver's cell number, too.
3. Be Ready for the Cafeteria
For many NYC kindergartners, this might also be their first time eating in a cafeteria. Food quality varies widely from school to school. My oldest begged me to give him money his freshman year of high school to avoid eating school lunch, which he swore NO ONE was partaking in.
Unlike high-schoolers, kindergartners don’t have the option of going out for lunch. Unless you arrange to pack them a meal (check with your particular school about its individual policy), your child will need to eat in the cafeteria. And some schools have a rule that you must try at least one bite of everything on your tray. This can come as quite a shock to kids who’ve previously been allowed to pick and choose, whether at home or in private daycare. Make sure yours are emotionally prepared for the policy. Who knows, they might even discover their new favorite food!
Be aware, if your child has allergies, just giving the school nurse a doctor’s note night not be enough to exempt them. My son has a dairy allergy, but was still told to take a carton of milk. “Just throw it out,” the cafeteria servers advised. You may need to ask the nurse to speak with them.
4. It's a Long Day: Give Them Some Downtime
Families need to let go thinking of kindergarten as fun, games, circle time and naps. (It’s more of a rest period now where teachers might read stories or show a video instead; every moment should be a learning moment, after all!)
Universal pre-K hours were 8:40 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Kindergarten might start earlier for some, end later for others, or both. In either case, the workload will be greater. As we've noted here, skills that were once taught in first grade are migrating down. Kindergartners are expected to learn to read, write, do arithmetic and sit still for a much longer period of time than before. Recess and play-breaks are shrinking, as is art and music in many cases. Homework is all but guaranteed: It might be some reading out loud, it might be worksheets (or a worksheet in each language for those in dual language programs).
Some kids love it. They can’t wait to get off the bus and hit the books. Others might need more downtime between school and homework. Keep that in mind, especially when scheduling afterschool activities. For some, starting an assignment after a full day of school and then sports/drama/art class and dinner is much too late in the day and will result in tears and meltdowns. Yes, I’m referring to kids and parents.
5. You’re Not Stuck Forever
Whether your family got assigned a school you don’t like or whether, as the year progresses, you realize the fit isn’t good for either you or your child, you are not obliged to stick it out for the rest of the 6, 9 or 13 years the school runs.
You can try transferring as early as the first week. Enrollment lists don’t close until late October, and I know of cases where a parent literally showed up at the school she preferred for her child on the assumption that someone registered wouldn’t make it, and she could snap it up the spot (she did). Mind you, this isn’t official NYC Department of Ed transfer policy, it’s just what people "in the know" do.
You can also apply to a different school for the following year. If your child is in a Gifted & Talented program and you decide the work is too much, you can try for a General Education seat in the same school they already attend. If, on the other hand, your child finds the General Education curriculum too easy, you can apply to have your kid test for Gifted & Talented (be advised, though, that there are fewer G&T seats at the first grade level than there are for kindergarten, and you may need to accept a spot in a different school).
You can apply to a magnet program, which frequently have seats in older grades, as do some charter schools, or you can check out private schools. Because the birthday cutoff for NYC public school kindergarten is December 31, while most private schools maintain a September 1 cutoff, parents who realize being the youngest in the class isn’t good for their child can reapply for kindergarten at a private school. It’s not really “repeating” the year, except in name only, as the curriculum is very different.
Remember, kindergarten is not a lifetime commitment.