Starting first grade is one of the most exciting transition periods in a child’s life. Whether they attended daycare or preschool in Japan or abroad, or stayed at home with family, entering the elementary school system will ensure a springtime full of changes.
What kind of changes, you might be wondering? Japanese children surveyed noted that the biggest differences between daycare or preschool and elementary school were the set time for lessons, the limited free time for play and rules on when to go to the bathroom or drink water and the amount of independence required of you. Compared to the expectations of schools elsewhere, this last point is particularly salient to the Japanese context. Indeed, in the last year of preschool (nen-cho gumi), teachers can be especially demanding on the five-six-year-old students in order to prepare them to be much more responsible for themselves the following year.
Having gone through a completely different North American school system myself, I was curious about these expectations for my little one, as perhaps you are as well after clicking on this article. So, after much reading and consulting senpai mamas, I narrowed the skills expected of the incoming first graders into three categories: academic, lifestyle routine and communication. I hope this eases some parent anxiety, as it has done for me.
This is the first category, but it is also perhaps the most contentious. Ostensibly elementary school will teach the very skills I am going to list below. But, there are sometimes unsaid expectations going in.
Reading and Writing
One of those things is being able to read hiragana (and maybe katakana) and being able to write one’s name in hiragana. Yes, they will teach this in school. But, realistically, it is expected going in. At preschool, for example, although it is not always taught in class, many children exchange letters written in their own hand by ages four or five. Where did they learn then? Either at home or at juku (cram school) where the responsibility falls to parents to either contribute time or money to boost their children’s writing skills before entering elementary school.
Similarly, but even more surprising to parents, is that it’s best to have a head start not only with counting but also with a little addition and subtraction. Maybe you’ve seen that the youji (young child) self-study books by companies like Gakken (4歳 たしざん 学研の幼児ワーク) and Kumon (はじめてのたしざん かず・けいさん 4) start teaching addition in books aimed at four-year-olds. As for counting, most books aimed at six-year-olds claim to teach proficiency up until 100 (6歳 かず 学研の幼児ワーク).
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