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The Educational Path To College

College readiness doesn't start in the teen years. See what skills and knowledge your child picks up at each stage in life that prepares them for higher education.

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Your child's journey to college doesn't start in high school. Kids learn useful life and academic skills at school and at home from the time they're little that put them on the road to higher education. Know what your child learns at each stage of school, why it matters and what you can do to help them stay on track.

Birth and preschool

Ages: 0-4 years old

Believe it or not, getting your child on the route to college begins at a very early age. As early as birth, there are things you can do to prepare them for their future education.

The first? Start saving. The cost of college might not even come to mind while you're holding your precious newborn, but the simple step of starting a savings account for them can make a huge difference down the road for your child. You can do this by setting up a savings plan at Michigan Education Savings Plan (MESP) or Michigan Education Trust (MET), says Gabriela Garfield, interim senior director of student financial aid at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The next major step: preschool. Early childhood experts agree the earlier a toddler starts preschool, the better. Andrea Krause, lead teacher at Detroit Edison Public School Academy's preschool program, says the kids she sees come through her program are often better prepared for kindergarten.

"There (are) many aspects that we do that, really, it all links up to their future education," Krause says. "The biggest thing" they work on in preschool are social skills, which she says prime kids for the school years ahead and their future careers.

In preschool, kids are learning how to communicate with their peers and also to problem solve, Krause says, so even learning to help another student zip her coat or open a container is a way they're "becoming a caring and compassionate person in the world."

Preschool is also a child's introduction to school and its many subjects, such as reading, writing and math. In her classroom, Krause says this includes "letter recognition, then the sounds that correlate with the letter," as well as number identification, counting, recognizing patterns and grouping items, writing their names and basic reading skills.

At Jill's Creative Learning, a home-based program, lead teacher Lakeysha Frierson says much of the learning is done through play. Krause says with activities like dramatic play, the kids are having fun, but they're also mimicking what they see at home and using their own creativity, too.

Parents, take note: During the preschool years, there are things you can do at home with your child to help them learn, too.

"I think one of the biggest things that I would say to parents and do say to parents is just sitting with their kids and actually spending time and talking to their children," Krause says, suggesting parents ask questions like, "How was your day?" and "What did you do today?"

Parents also can turn everyday situations into learning opportunities. While at the grocery store, have kids count the number of oranges in the cart; have them help you write a shopping list and talk about prices, she recommends.

"I think it all just comes down to spending time with your kids and actually communicating with them," Krause says.

Elementary school

Grades: K-6

The elementary years are when kids are establishing a foundation in core curriculum – reading, math, science and other subjects that are so key for college readiness.

But Thirkell Elementary School teacher Julia Pitts – who teaches fifth grade language arts and social studies and has taught younger students over the years, as well – says there are other less-tangible skills they are developing too.

During the elementary years, the kids are learning "how to work with each other, with groups," Pitts says. Both skills aid them in society and future jobs, where they'll work with others. "We begin building the characteristics in children," she adds, such as how to respect others and handling responsibilities.

In addition, "We're teaching them to think critically," she says. Plus, Pitts says she teaches students how to read and comprehend instructions and follow directions. "Tiny steps that build big milestones to their learning," Pitts explains.

Pitts says that by the time kids reach the fifth grade, she likes to see students able to put together and organize a sentence. As far as at what point students should be meeting certain milestones, she says, "We all have high expectations but the reality is … every child is different."

So, for a child who is struggling with any aspect of school, Pitts notes, "We're going to have a find out another pathway" when it comes to learning.

"The very first thing, I would think, is that parental involvement in the school is very crucial," she says. Parents should monitor their child's academic progress regularly, know what they're doing for homework and contact the teacher to discuss any difficulties they run into, she says.

And if parents don't understand the homework or how to help their child, teachers can help them, too. In the past, Pitts says she's come in early to assist parents, and has even recorded her lessons to send home, so parents can follow along.

Reading readiness in elementary school is a major takeaway, so Pitts recommends parents go over sounds and letters. Even if you don't have a book at home, make index cards or write words on paper to make your own book so kids can practice word recognition – or have them read ingredients on a can of food.

"Use all the materials that you have at home," she says, and "make a game out of it."

Ultimately, Pitts sums it up this way: "Parents (are) the first teacher – the first educator." Being involved with homework and showing overall support in school enhances kids' education.

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