The #1 Skill Your Child Needs for Success in Kindergarten

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With back-to-school madness just around the corner, so many parents are looking for ways to ensure that their child is ready for Kindergarten. We purchase workbooks, pull out flashcards, and pour over resources making sure that our child will be successful at this next big step.

But time and time again, research shows that a 5 or 6 year olds success in kindergarten has very little to do with their letter and number concepts, and everything to do with their self-regulation skills.


Self-regulation is your child’s ability to control their emotional and behavioral responses to any given situation. It’s the ability to calm themselves down when they are upset. It’s being able to wait to be called upon to give an answer. It’s the ability to handle frustration, adapt to changes in routines, share materials, wait a turn, or solve a social problem or conflict. It’s any opportunity your child has to practice self-control. And boy, is it difficult.

While self-regulation should be the #1 focus of all preschool programs, unfortunately, it often gets brushed aside as an afterthought.

Check out: 5 Things to Look for in Your Child’s Preschool

All too often teachers (and parents) take on the role of solving all of their children’s conflicts, rather than facilitating interactions and helping the child build resilience. Little ones are put in time-out for bad behavior, instead of being given tools and strategies to help them be successful the next time.

Children Need to PLAY in Preschool

In an effort to “prepare” kids for kindergarten, many preschools put free-play on the back burner and focus on teaching academics. But free play is how children learn to manage their impulses and gain self-control. Without free play, children are at a major disadvantage for kindergarten.

Kindergarten is becoming more and more academically rigorous each year, and so the ability for your child to self-regulate is even more important now than ever before.

Without being able to keep their emotions and behaviors in check, children cannot possibly focus on the difficult academic concepts they are being expected to learn. Little ones that struggle with self-regulation often spend their entire day trying to keep themselves from falling apart, rather than absorbing any academic content.

Self-regulation is not a skill that can be acquired through rote memorization or drills. Children need many, many social opportunities to practice their ability to wait, calm themselves down, and problem solve without emotional outbursts.

Here are some easy ways to build self-regulation skills in your child:

Talk about things ahead of time

When your child is going to be faced with a new experience, make sure you talk about what to expect and how to handle the new situation. For example, if your child is going over to a friends house for a playdate for the first time, talk to them about the expectations.

Talk about how they are going to have to share toys, listen to their friend’s parents, etc. Practice phrases that they can use with their friend like “Can I have a turn with that when you are finished?”

If something happens and your child isn’t able to use their self-regulation skills, talk about it after the fact when they are calm. Talk about how it made their friend feel when they did “XYZ.”

Read books about it

There are tons of great books about appropriate social behaviors and expectations. Read books on sharing, waiting turns, and dealing with big feelings. Here are some of my favorites for teaching self-regulation:

The Feelings Book

Hands are Not for Hitting

The Way I Feel

The Way I Act

Listening to My Body

What Were You Thinking? Learning to Control Impulses

My Incredible Talking Body

You can also make your child their own book about whatever it is they are struggling with (these are commonly known as “Social Stories”). Take pictures of your child and create your own simple picture book talking about the problem your child is facing and the solution or strategies they can use to make it better. Children love seeing their own images in books, so this idea is very effective!

Teach your child calm down strategies

Spend time each day practicing calming strategies with your child – and practice when they aren’t upset! Model for them how to take big, deep breaths, and use your own experiences to show them how to put that into practice.

For example, if I’m feeling frustrated with my child I try to stop and say “I’m feeling frustrated. I need to take some deep breaths and calm down.” Then I’ll take some big, exaggerated breaths and say “I feel much better now.”

You can also help your child recognize what has helped them calm down in the past. Say, “I noticed that last time you were upset it really helped when you squeezed your bear.” Help your child develop a toolbox of strategies to use when they are upset.

Fresh air, exercise, and plenty of sleep

This seems obvious, but it’s so critical! No matter how much you talk about it or read about it, if your child is tired or fresh-air deprived, their self-regulation skills are going to suffer.

Five year olds should be getting between 10 and 13 hours of sleep each day. Some 5 year olds still need to nap, but most children get all of these hours of sleep at night time. Children also need lots of opportunities for active movement and outdoor play in order to be at their best for keeping themselves regulated throughout the day.


10 thoughts on “The #1 Skill Your Child Needs for Success in Kindergarten

  1. I would read “My Mouth is a Volcano” to my third graders– it helps kids recognize when their mouths are about to erupt (interrupt)– and teaches strategies for waiting until their turn to speak. For the rest of the year, we would use the word “volcano” as a code word to help students remember the lesson in the story.

  2. What a great article! It really is important for kids to be successful in kindergarten and it’s a very looked over skill. My nephew struggles with this and he had a hard time in kindergarten. He is smart, but just wants to do his own thing and doesn’t understand he can’t.

    1. It’s so hard when little ones just aren’t quite ready for the structure of kindergarten. It’s a lot to expect from such little guys…they just want to play!

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