08/16/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

'Twas the Night Before Kindergarten Part I: Helping Your Child Know What to Expect this School Year

My daughters like to talk. Call it a girl thing, say it's because I chattered endlessly to them when they were babies or maybe they just have a lot to say. It's when they are not talking that I know something is up. The summer before my oldest daughter began kindergarten, her ideas could be flowing at 100 mph, but if someone asked her the dreaded, "Are you excited to start kindergarten?" question, she would slam on the silence brakes.

It was such an unusual reaction for her, not just because of her love of conversation, but also because she has such a zest for life; she approaches most things with unfettered zeal and excitement. She even clammed up when I asked about school -- that is, until the night before kindergarten, when she looked at me and said, "Mama, I just don't know what to expect tomorrow."

This, despite the fact that we had been to the school for registration day in the spring and had attended an in-class orientation with her teacher and future classmates the week before. The unknown is scary for children. Every school is different, but here are some of the basics that may help your kindergartener-to-be know what to expect this school year:

As with most good daycare and preschool programs, kindergarten will run according to a predictable and regular schedule. Whether your child is attending a half-day or full-day school, you can count on a structured program that includes time for early math, writing and reading skills and instruction in subjects like art, music, physical education, library and computers. Since socialization is such an important part of the kindergarten experience, your child can also expect that much of his learning will be done alongside of his peers, on the carpet at the front of the room, in centers around a chosen topic, or in pairs at a grouping of desks. And the best part of the daily schedule? Snack time is built into many kindergarten routines.

The structure of kindergarten provides the consistency and predictability that kids need to feel safe and to learn effectively. Within this framework of "knowing what to expect" from the schedule each day, the newness of school and school life becomes manageable and even thrilling. Will your kids ride the big, yellow bus for the first time this year? Will they eat in a cafeteria? Will they play on the playground at recess? From attending assemblies to seeing the school nurse to going on field trips, your kindergartner can expect to become more comfortable with newness this year.

The expectations of kindergarten are different from the ones in preschool. Kids are expected to be able to sit quietly for longer periods of time, to stay on task and to achieve significant learning. On the other hand, kindergarten is designed with 5 and 6-year-olds in mind, and any curriculum developer knows that play is the work of children. Your child can expect that his kindergarten days will be fun, designed around 100-day countdowns, themed-projects, holiday celebrations, catchy songs and funny poems.

The day my daughter bravely boarded the bus for her first day of school, I took a deep breath and didn't fully exhale until three hours later, when she ran off the bus and jumped into my arms. "I love it, Mama!" she began. "Did you know that when I got there, Mrs. P had my name at my desk waiting for me and we have our own bathroom right across the hallway and you get two choices for snack each day and we're even going to learn to count to 100 this year and..."

My chatter-er was back! She knew kindergarten was going to be just fine. Luckily, we had all afternoon to talk about it!

Stay tuned next week for 'Twas the Night Before Kindergarten Part II: What Parents Can Expect from the School Year

Signe Whitson is a national educator on bullying, crisis intervention, and child and adolescent mental health. She is the author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens and Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. For workshop inquiries or more information, please visit, Follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson and "Like" her on Facebook.