Diana Ruiz, director of First 5 and assistant professor of nursing at the University of Texas Permian Basin, said skills, characteristics, and behaviors show when a child is ready for kindergarten.
When First 5 conducts research into kindergarten readiness, they use a tool called early development instrument. They have done this for several years in Ector and Midland counties.
EDI covers five key domains of learning, Ruiz said. For some, kindergarten readiness might mean the child can write their name and knows their colors and letters.
“That’s crucial. That’s a vital skill that will then build up as you progress through school. However, our research actually shows that children are not necessarily struggling in the typical behavior of writing your name, knowing your letters, or numbers, or colors. We have found that of the developmental domains one that the children are struggling with the most is social confidence and emotional maturity,” Ruiz said.
What does that mean?
“… Well, a child can be incredibly smart and very proficient in those intellectual characteristics. However, if the child is unable to separate from their caregiver without showing anxious behaviors, fearful behaviors, crying, separation anxiety; that can certainly impede their learning. If the child is unable to get along with peers, that is a huge thing. We all know that getting along with others is a key part of society. And really quite frankly, some children very much struggle with that if they are only used to interacting with their own family members, or if they are a single child, or if they’ve not had any formal pre-k exposure where they have to learn to share take turns, stay in a line. That can be a challenge. Quite frankly we did notice that” Ruiz said.
Every year, the First 5 holds kindergarten camps in Odessa and Midland for children entering kindergarten. This past summer, they had about 75 students at each camp and the First 5 hopes to have 100 this coming summer with funding and support from the community.
“But what we found is the same thing. We had some very intelligent, bright children. They knew their letters, their numbers. One child in Odessa could even read at that point. We were incredibly impressed. That’s amazing. However, it was actually the behavioral issues that we struggled with the most. Some children were unable to keep their hands to themselves and not bother other children. They were unable to just sit and listen, so we did a lot of strategies that our College of Education partners really engaged us and taught us. Things like criss-cross applesauce. It’s the simplest of things, but that’s how you get them to understand: sit, cross your legs and keep your hands to yourself,” Ruiz said.
Physical health and well-being is another domain that First 5 looks at. Does it mean physical readiness — is the child awake and alert?
“That takes time to prepare a child, to say you’ll wake up early, especially after summer. You’ll wake up early; you’ll be fully engaged… As you know, all of our kindergartners receive breakfast every morning. That’s just part of the state regulations. I think that’s a great way to start waking them up. It helps eliminate food insecurity issues for children that may come to school hungry,” Ruiz said.
She noted that it’s hard for children to learn if their basic needs aren’t met.
Other things they look for are is a child able to pull his or her pants up (motor skills); are they able to put on their shoes, and go to the bathroom independently. Ruiz said some of the children were used to their parents or caregiver helping with all of those tasks.
In a classroom with 15 to 20 students, the teachers may not have time to help the students.
“Most of our students were doing very well in those categories — fine and gross motor skill activities. We had a lot of hands-on activities during kinder camp to one assess their level of development and two to intervene if we needed to. I would say a very low percentage maybe 5 percent of our children in either camp were unable to cut, or color, or hold a pencil so about 5 percent still weren’t, which was in all honesty, a little bit alarming because that’s a skill that is absolutely necessary. But the good news is the more you are exposed to the skill, the more it will develop,” Ruiz said.
Ector County ISD plans to offer full-day prekindergarten starting in August 2020, which Ruiz said she thinks is a “wonderful thing” as half-day pre-K would tend to be rushed. She added that full-day prekindergarten enable children to spend more time with their peers, sitting, listening and following instructions.
“I think that from the parent perspective, the most important thing you can do is we follow along with your child’s milestones. At 3 years old, what should our child be doing? At 4 years old, what should I be introducing? You don’t have to wait for formal pre-k to start introducing these things. You can buy safety scissors and teach your child to cut. What I love about our access to the internet now is that you can print so many things — from practicing tracing letters to gluing and cutting …,” Ruiz said.
She added that the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin recently announced that POWER bags will be distributed to parents of newborns with resources for them to start communicating and reading to their children from day one. The bags will include a Centers for Disease Control milestone moments book, CDC age-level baby book, a Scholastic book, baby toy keys, a baby bib, articles, a magnet and website information for additional resources.
Everything will be in an English and Spanish version.
Ruiz said the more parents can engage with their child, the better off the child will be once he or she gets to kindergarten.
An ECISD information sheet says home support can include reading books to your child, engaging the child by asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer, singing songs and reciting poems and rhymes, pointing out street signs and packaging labels are just some of the things parents can do.
Ruiz said parents should speak to their children in full sentences.
ECISD Superintendent Scott Muri said the POWER bags are a great start and full-day prekindergarten, but there also are opportunities for 1, 2 and 3-year-olds.
“Parents seek information. I’ve never met a parent that does not want their child to be successful in school, which would include successful on the first day of kindergarten. Much of it is just equipping our parents with the information that they need so that they can provide these learning opportunities for their kids as they grow and develop,” Muri said.
“You’ve heard people talk about the 30 million word gap. Kids of poverty have a 30 million word gap compared to kids that do not live in poverty. That’s just a conversation. When you take your kid to the grocery store, do you use that as an opportunity to engage in conversation? You think about all of the words and letters that kids see; the colors; the shapes; the way a grocery store is organized; all of the names and labels of things that are in there. The conversation that a parent can have with a child in a grocery store is fascinating and there’s so much learning that can happen in just that one space,” he added.
The first 5 also helps families prepare their children for kindergarten with the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters or HIPPY program. A free, 30-week, home-based kindergarten readiness program for children ages 3-5, HIPPY providers come to a child’s home once a week and provide materials that increase parent and child interaction, the UTPB website said.
Karla Juarez, the community engagement and data coordinator for First 5, described the Nurse-Family Partnership.
“… NFP starts seeing first-time mothers before 28 weeks and what they do is they come up to the home… We focus on getting them to start reading to their baby, even though they’re still pregnant ..,” Juarez said. “… Even if you’re reading something in the newspaper, or you’re reading something on Facebook… we tell them to read it out loud read it where they can hear you. We try to focus on reading to their babies when they’re still in the womb, singing to their babies, talking to them on a daily basis. That way, whenever they are born they can just transfer that …”
She added that the baby may not understand what the mother is talking about, but it creates interaction with the child. Juarez said they encourage fathers to get involved, too. First 5 also has a fatherhood engagement program, 24:7 Dad designed to enhance the role fathers play in a child’s life and the importance of being an active father.
Juarez added that books are provided to families because some families can’t afford them.
“… But if we bring one to every visit, by the end of the program they will have a whole library for their baby,” she said.
Ruiz added that many people grew up in low or middle-income homes where books were a luxury, so children would make a choice between a book or a toy.
“… We take that choice out of the equation so it isn’t a barrier. It shouldn’t be a barrier to families. We’re very proud that we’ve partnered with different entities in the community — the City of Odessa, the Junior League of Odessa, Complex Community Federal Credit Union — to really be able to provide a lot of books,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said the First 5’s data shows that about 50 percent of children weren’t ready for kindergarten.
The school district says 57 percent of kindergarteners who attended prekindergarten were not ready for kindergarten in 2019. Sixty-five percent of kindergarteners were not ready for kindergarten in 2019, district information shows.
“It’s disappointing. It is frightening. I think that’s when you come together as a community and you say what part does each of us play, so I’m excited to see the health care component come to life. That will certainly grow into it. Obviously, First 5 is always looking for additional funding to expand our services to meet those needs and then there’s a lot of great entities in the community that is doing their part to step up. The whole POWER bag initiative, I really am hopeful and I expect great things from it to really engage parents about reading …,” Ruiz said.
Juarez has three sons. She recently finished school and is working a full-time job. Although it’s hectic when they get home, they have a routine of reading where her oldest reads a book to his siblings and she reads with her 6-year old, for example.
She also tells her children stories.
Ruiz noted that regardless of age, you will never be fully prepared to become a parent.
“I was an older parent and I was still was not fully prepared, so I think that’s where we come in. That’s where the POWER bag comes in. Let us help you. You don’t know what you don’t know until you get there; until you bring this bundle of joy home and you think oh my gosh what am I supposed to do with this child? There really isn’t a manual to go by …,” Ruiz said.
Muri said there are simple things parents can do to help their children prepare for school.
“If a child knows their alphabet on the first day of school and they can recognize letters and numbers, then they’re a bit more equipped than their peers who may not have those experiences and so the teacher is able to take a child who knows and recognizes their letters and numbers a teacher can turn the letters into words and build vocabulary then begin to build sentences and introduce punctuation,” Muri said.
Literacy starts with the basics of recognizing upper and lower case letters.
“The teacher uses that prior knowledge and they build on that prior knowledge and expose them to other opportunities. Our challenge is that many of our kids don’t come equipped. They don’t recognize letters and numbers and they don’t know how to write their name and they don’t know rhyming words, they don’t have specific skills so the teacher is having to teach that prior knowledge to kids and almost catch them up with their peers so they start behind and many times once you start behind you remain behind throughout your academic career,” Muri said.
“It’s our opportunity as educators to recognize that we will always have kids that will start behind and we have to… scaffold them up and give them the tools, knowledge, and ability to be successful, to be able to compete with their peers. But imagine if every kid came equipped day one; just wow. What that could mean for those kids as far as their success not only through k-12 but their success in life,” Muri said.