Master the one super skill that will set your child up for school

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Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Rachel Carey is a mother and a children's occupational therapist living and working in Ballito, in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Here she provides some insights into the one 'super skill' that your child needs to be fully prepared for school next year.


As an occupational therapist I am often asked to contribute to school readiness assessments.

These are usually done before a child attends Grade 1 and look at how prepared the child is to cope with the learning demands of the Grade 1 classroom.

The shift from Grade R to Grade 1 is a significant one and many children find the change to the more structured day and increase in work load a difficult one to manage. 

Without a doubt, the child’s level of skill and exposure to and understanding of early literacy and numeracy plays a part in this adjustment.

But, what is very often not assessed or considered, and which has an even more vital role to play because of the dependence of all other learning being preceded by it, is the child’s ability to regulate him or herself emotionally. 

Self regulation is the super skill that will set your child up for school 

When I talk to parents about this, I ask them to imagine that they are driving in their car with the radio on.

They enjoy the music as it plays softly in the background. Maybe they turn it up when a favourite song comes on, or when the traffic report is being read.

And goodness, if they are anything like me, they’ll turn it right down when they need to get into that tricky parallel parking spot. 

Emotional self-regulation is much like the volume dial on your radio.

Having the ability to change your emotional volume according to the needs of the situation that you are in has a direct impact on both the outcomes of the task you are involved in, and on the experience of the process.

A precursor to progress

So much of school readiness assessment is based on scholastic progress and the development of fine and gross motor skills.

The truth is however, that emotional self-regulation is a precursor to all of these abilities.

There is little use in being able to identify letters and phonics if the child is overcome by anxiety when asked to do it in the classroom.

Likewise, if a child cannot manage the increasing demands of drawing, writing and cutting that the classroom environment asks of them and becomes overwhelmed by frustration, there is little chance that he or she will be able to build on these skills.

Babies are not born with the innate ability to self-regulate.

At first, they don’t even see themselves as separate to their mothers and all regulation is dependent on the care and love that they receive from the person looking after them. 

As they get older and start to see themselves as separate beings to their mothers, they begin to develop the understanding that they may have different thoughts and feelings to those that are around them.

Co-regulation vs self-regulation 

Although this theory of mind is developing, children of this age do not yet have the maturity to be able to manage their own emotions and so need comfort, boundaries, help and positive modelling in order to do this.

We call this process co-regulation.

Self-regulation only comes as the child’s cortex in the brain develops and they are able to start identifying their own emotions and are then able to modulate the intensity and expressions of these emotions to fit the situation.

Think of that volume dial on the radio again – its ok to feel sad and to express that, but do you need to throw yourself on the floor in floods of tears?

Perhaps asking for a hug would be a better option.

A child that is well regulated:

  • can navigate the difficulties within the classroom;
  • can ask for help,
  • is able to identify and express fears,
  • has more tolerance and resilience when attempting new things,
  • is able to be excited but still wait his or her turn to answer,
  • and can build on skills with a strong foundation of self-confidence

So how do we develop this super skill?

What can we do to help prepare our children so that they are able to regulate their emotions in the classroom? These are three steps to take at home to help your child be ready to regulate at school: 

1. Words matter

In his well-known book Emotional Intelligence, (in which the term was coined) Daniel Goleman speaks about the different pillars of emotional intelligence.

The first of these is something he calls Self-Awareness.

This is the ability to identify and name what it is that you are feeling. Shanley Schaefer, from Heart Matters Academy in Cape Town, explains how children need the words and vocabulary to be able to describe and express their emotions.

What is important is that these are shared words so that children and the adults around them are talking about and meaning the same thing.

To make it easier to know the types of words to use, she has collated a list of terminology which gives children the power to express all of their feelings and to identify if is it something that is comfortable or uncomfortable to them.

After this, they are able to make a choice about what they are going to do about their feelings. 

2. All feelings are welcome  

The uncomfortable feelings should be as accepted as the comfortable feelings in our hearts.

Allowing children to feel sad, angry and afraid is important because if we try to deny these feelings, we effectively stop children from learning how to deal with them and move on.

This may work in controlling behaviour to a point but unfortunately, there will come a time when the intensity of their feelings will overwhelm them and then they will not have the tools to manage their responses anymore.

Helping children to identify the uncomfortable feeling and then teaching them strategies to use to move forward is far more worthwhile.

There are a range of different strategies that can be used from breathing techniques, to using safe spaces, going for a short walk, having a block of ice to suck, screaming into a pillow or even punching a punching bag.

What is important is that you find a few strategies that are useful for your child.

These need to be things that your child finds easy and comforting to do so that the choice to do them to help manage feelings is achievable. 

3. Help your children until they can do it themselves 

Introducing words and terminology to explain their feelings and deciding together on good strategies to help manage feelings is a great start.

But the truth is that before your child can do this process independently, he or she is going to need your help. Being overwhelmed by emotion can be compared to your child being stuck at the top of a tall building.

He or she is looking down in a compete panic and has no idea how to get down. Standing on the ground shouting at him or her to jump is never going to solve the problem. 

Sometimes you are going to have to climb that building yourself to fetch the child.

Sometimes it may be building scaffolding to talk him or her down each step of the way. But the more you help your child come down the building in a conscious, careful way, the easier it will become for him or her to replicate the process independently.

A key role 

I in no way mean to downplay the importance of assessing a child’s knowledge and skills when looking at if they are ready for the transition to the Grade 1 year.

Understanding however, that their emotional self-regulation plays a key role in how they will handle the changes and increased demands is very important in supporting them to succeed.

Self-regulation really is the super skill that underpins all other skills and that when mastered, will be the best tool your child can have to use when meeting the challenges of school life. 

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