In recent years the term ‘school readiness’ has tended to focus primarily on a child’s ability to identify and write the letters of the alphabet, count to 10, and perhaps write their name. A generation or two ago, the focus tended more toward social, emotional, and independence readiness – a child’s comfort level when away from their primary caregiver, their ability to care for themselves by putting on their own shoes and coat, and their readiness to listen and follow directions. When children were able to do all these things, they were considered ready to begin formal schooling, where they would learn the academics of the alphabet, maths, and penmanship.
Social and emotional skills are a key aspect of school readiness. Montessori identified the ‘social embryonic stage’ as a period of life when children begin to form their identity and sense of community. Like the physical growth of the child, from embryo in utero, to newborn, infant, then toddler, a child’s social growth follows a similar process of development. Children before the age of three are absorbing the sights, sounds, and experiences in their immediate environment. From birth they respond to and delight in interaction with their caregivers and others in their environment.
Yet, infants and young toddlers typically play in parallel with peers, rather than interactively or cooperatively. Their development is focused on controlling their movements, both fine and gross motor skills. They are discovering who they are and how their bodies interact with their environment. Montessori observed that around the age of 3 the child’s interest in others begins to blossom. As they become more consciously aware of their own individuality and their preferences and opinions, their curiosity about and interest in others increases. They seek out children with similar interests and are eager to engage in activities with others.
Between the ages of 3 and 6, children are engaged in a sensitive period for building these social skills. Their developing language skills support their efforts to invite, persuade, negotiate, and dispute with others as they build their sense of who they are in relation to their peers. As the child transitions from the early years to school age, another transformation occurs. Relationships with classmates and peers become a primary focus. Friendships become an important part of the child’s emotional and psychological support system.
A year of mandated social distancing has prevented many children from experiencing the social interactions that support the development of these social skills. A child who was two when lock downs began likely missed the daily opportunities for social engagement that support a child who is transitioning through the social embryonic stage. Caregivers who are sensitive to this loss can support these children by allowing them to interact with others at their own pace. Not all children will be ready to dive head first into collaborative learning and group experiences.
Here are some ways to help prepare children socially for the transition from lockdowns and social distancing to social engagement and school:
- Provide opportunities for children to be in the company of other children – a playgrounds and parks, community events, library story hour without requirements that they engage with others.
- Do not pressure children to play with each other but allow them to be in the company of other children on their own terms.
- Take it slow and do not try to make up for a year’s worth of lost playdates in a single summer.
- Take the time to observe the child’s reaction to group activities. Are they overwhelmed? Do they need some time alone, back in their familiar environment, to regroup?
- Keep schedules flexible, allowing ample time for unhurried exploration and transitions.
- Create environments where individual children, even those of three and four, can continue in parallel play until they are ready to participate in group activities or collaborative learning.
- Offer more opportunities for social interaction and shared experiences as the child shows readiness for this next stage of social development.
Caregivers who show sensitivity to the social and emotional needs of children who may have been in lock downs for a third of their life can help ease their transition back into playgroups and classrooms full of similarly affected peers.