Cultivating the good life for all of Nebraska's children.

Reading and math: Tips for making words and numbers exciting before kindergarten


Language and literacy development

Words are thoughts. The more words your child hears in his first years, the better positioned he will be to understand more advanced concepts in school. This does NOT mean that you need to do word flash cards and worksheets. It means that exposing your child to spoken and written language should be a regular part of your everyday routine. Here’s how:

  • Describe what’s going on – Whether it’s your toddler’s bath or the ball your preschooler is playing with, use words to tell her what’s happening, and ask her to describe things to you.
  • Encourage your child to “use your words” – Instead of pointing at something they want, or whining, let your child know that you’ll be happy to help him if he can tell you what he wants. Give your child the words to communicate their needs. For pre-verbal children, when they make a sound, like “bah”, to indicate what they want, give them the right words as you’re getting what they need (“OK, you want your bottle. Here is your bottle.”)
  • Read, read, read – Make books a part of every day. Even babies benefit from the sound of your voice reading stories and nursery rhymes. They get acquainted with the rhythm of language, the mechanics of reading, and the joy of sharing words with the person they love most. Make books available for children to play with, and let them choose their favorites.
  • Sing – Songs are a great way to learn about sounds, rhyme, rhythm and words. Sing to your child, with your child, and encourage your child to sing to you.
  • Play sound matching games – A twist on “I spy” is to say “I’m looking for something that starts with a B. What in this room begins with a buh sound?”
  • Point out words – While you’re driving, while you’re reading, in the store, point out interesting words to your child and spell them out. “That sign says STOP. S-T-O-P stop.”
  • Drawing and writing – Make sure your child has access to crayons, pencils and paper and encourage drawing and scribbling. This will strengthen the muscles in their for hands when it’s time to start really writing.

Math and science


Number concepts are a delight to children. In fact, basic mathematical concepts are some of the easiest to grasp for preschoolers. Instilling a sense of joy, wonder and accomplishment around math and science early can help carry kids through times when they’re more challenged. Here’s how you can make math and science part of daily learning.

  • Counting songs – Even from a very young age, children benefit from hearing the proper sequence of numbers. Counting songs (like Sally the Camel, One-Two, Buckle My Shoe) give context to the numbers and introduce children to their natural order.
  • Count what you’re doing – When you’re putting strawberries on your child’s plate, or helping her put toys away, count together how many items you’re handling.
  • Describe shapes – Play games that help your child identify shapes. During tidy-up time, ask your child to bring all the items of a particular shape to you.
  • Talk time – Ask about what happened yesterday, what you’re doing today, and what might happen tomorrow. This will help your child develop an understanding of chronology.
  • Make a beach – Supply your child with sand and water toys to explore texture, liquid, solid and mixing.
  • Get outside – Give your child access to nature so she can observe what’s happening in the outside world. Describe things that you see (“Look, that bird is bringing food back to her nest to feed her babies” or “That grass has grown so much that it is making seeds.”)
  • Cook together – Though meal prep time can be a very busy time, let your child help on occasion. Preschoolers can measure out ingredients, help time things, and mix ingredients together. Cooking is a wonderful hands-on way to put science and math in to action!

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Day one of kindergarten: getting excited and prepared

As the first day of kindergarten approaches, your child may be nervous, excited, afraid or feeling all of these emotions. And that’s OK! Helping your child feel excited and prepared for kindergarten makes the first day easier for him and for you. Here are some ways to get ready for day one from the Nebraska Department of Education:

  • Talk with your childcare provider about adjusting your current routine (such as naptime) to help prepare your child for the new daily schedule.
  • Read books about kindergarten and encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings. • Participate in school open houses and information meetings. Help your child feel more comfortable and confident by knowing what will happen, where things are, whom she knows, and what to look forward to.
  • Meet with your child’s teacher, especially if you feel your child may need individual attention or support.
  • Start a new bed time and morning routine a few days before school starts. A routine will help your child get the 10-12 hours of sleep needed.
  • Talk with your child about what you will each do on that first day. Consider sending a small visual reminder, such as a family photo to provide comfort.
  • Arrive at school early to give your child time to settle in. Remind your child about your plans for the end of the school day. Give a reassuring, cheerful, and short good-bye.

Books to help your child get ready for kindergarten

These books are recommended by the Nebraska Department of Education to help you get your child ready for and excited about their first day of kindergarten.

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Real readiness: Social-emotional development and success in school

Social and emotional skills –not academic skills– are most predictive of success in kindergarten.

When a 5-year-old enters kindergarten, she’ll be best positioned for success if she can sit and listen to the teacher, get along with other students, keep her emotions in check and feel confident that she can handle whatever comes her way. Here are some ways you can make sure your child is socially and emotionally ready to handle kindergarten.

Let’s get excited!

Help your child get enthusiastic about kindergarten and confident that she’ll be able to succeed there. If you’re excited, it will be hard for your child not to be.

  • Play pretend games where your child is the student and you’re the teacher
  • Visit the school with your child before the first day
  • Listen to your child’s thoughts, fears and ideas about kindergarten
  • Read books about kindergarten

Practice makes perfect.

Working on some of the important skills your child will need in kindergarten can help him feel more confident about success.

  • Teach your child to follow directions by giving simple steps.
  • Give your child the opportunity to practice waiting in line, taking turns, playing and sharing with other children and sitting in a circle.
  • Work on fun puzzles and games that present a bit of a challenge to your child. Talk about how challenges are fun and celebrate your child’s persistence and small victories along the way.
  • Talk to your child about the difference between feelings and actions. Repeat often that it’s OK to feel mad, sad or frustrated, but it’s not OK to hit, kick, or throw a tantrum. Give your child ideas for appropriate actions when they’re feeling mad, sad or frustrated.
  • Work with your child on using words to describe her feelings, instead of taking an inappropriate action.

Get along, little doggie.

Getting along with classmates and making friends is one of the best parts of kindergarten. By helping your child develop the skills they need to have positive relationships in kindergarten will help them feel more excited and confident.

  • Show your child ways to approach others and make new friends.
  • Talk about how your child can be friends with children who may look or speak differently.
  • Teach your child what to do when someone hurts his feelings.
  • Discuss what it is to be a good friend – sharing, caring, and being gentle.
  • Let your child talk about things they’re interested in, and teach them how to listen when others talk about what they’re interested in.
  • Teach your child to know when it’s his turn to speak, and when it’s time to listen

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Choosing a high-quality preschool program in Nebraska


If your child is already in a care setting that has a preschool program that you like, that’s great news. For many Nebraska families, however, their 3- and 4-year-olds will be starting preschool after being in a home-based setting. For those looking for the right preschool, it’s important to know the terms that preschools use in order to choose the approach that’s right for your child and family, as well as reliable indicators of quality.


No one knows your child better than you do. Take time to familiarize yourself with some of the terms used to describe preschool programs. Check out this list of terms from Get Ready to Read.

  • Child-centered – This term is often used to describe settings that take the children’s interests into consideration when planning activities. For example: in a child-centered setting, the classroom activities are based on the interests of the students, not on pre-scheduled topics chosen by the teacher. These settings often offer increased opportunities for children to choose activities throughout the day depending on their interests.
  • Teacher-led – The opposite of a child-centered setting is a teacher-led setting. Teacher-led often means that curriculum and supplemental activities are implemented based on a set schedule developed by the teachers in the setting. This type of setting usually provides children with a structured learning environment.
  • Child-led – These settings believe children learn best when they are engaged and interested in learning. Child-led settings wait for each child to initiate or ask for new activities and experiences, fostering individualized learning experiences rather than group experiences.
  • Faith-based – This term is used to describe preschool programs that are run through faith organizations such as churches or synagogues, according to their faith’s philosophies. Nebraska Children and Families Foundation
  • Co-operative – These settings often ask parents and families to assist in the running of the preschool. Parents and family members may build community by signing up to volunteer during the week, or by assisting in the day-to-day management of the preschool as well as helping with advertising, upkeep and fundraising.

Quality indicators

  • Developmentally Appropriate – This term means the preschool plans the curriculum and activities based on activities that are appropriate for the age of the children in the class.
  • Pre-kindergarten (pre-K) – Sometimes this term is used interchangeably with preschool. In general, a pre-K program is one that has children enrolled in the year before kindergarten, usually at age four. These settings are often more structured than traditional preschools.
  • Licensed – Preschools and child care centers that are licensed meet the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ standards to be considered a child care/preschool facility. Licensing is not at all an indicator of quality, just that the facility has legal permission to call itself a preschool or child care facility. There are four types of licensing:
    • Provisional or Operating Family Child Care Home I – up to 10 children, one provider, in the provider’s home
    • Provisional or Operating Family Child Care Home II – up to 12 children, two providers, either in the primary provider’s home Or in a separate building
    • Provisional or Operating Child Care Center – 0ver 12 children, provider-child ratio determined by ages of children
    • Provisional or Operating Preschool – primarily an educational setting
  • Accredited – Child care centers and preschools can choose to get accredited by an accrediting organization. This means they have to meet higher standards than licensing rules. The program must offer the kind of care, attention, and educational activities parents look for in quality child care programs. It must offer activities and experiences that will aid in a child’s growth and development, and that will help them prepare for school. Accrediting agencies include:

Once you know what you’re comfortable with in terms of approach and quality, it’s time to build your short list.

Decide who you want to consider based on the criteria that’s most important to you. What programs do friends that you trust recommend? What reviews are you seeing online? Who has an educational philosophy that matches what you’re looking for? Who’s close to your home or work? Who’s high quality AND still in your price range?

Finally, see for yourself.

Once you have your short list, make appointments to visit the programs you’re considering. Seeing really is believing. When you’re visiting programs, ask yourself if you could see your child fitting in there. If your culture will be honored. If the children seem happy and engaged. Stay and observe as long as you need to. Some questions to keep in mind on your visit include:

  • What is the turnover rate for staff members?
  • What percentage of the staff hold degrees in early childhood?
  • How does the setting handle discipline?
  • What are the safety procedures for picking up and dropping off children?
  • Is the setting accredited?
  • What are the payment options and procedures?

If you’d like a more structured approach to selecting the right preschool, consider this checklist from PTA and Pre-K Now.

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Nebraska Children receives 4-Star rating from Charity Navigator


Charity Navigator, America’s premier charity evaluator, has just awarded Nebraska Children and Families Foundation 4 out of 4 stars for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

“We are proud to announce Nebraska Children and Families Foundation has earned our second consecutive 4-star rating,” writes  Pat Dugan, Charity Navigator’s founder and board chair. “Receiving four out of a possible four stars indicates that your organization adheres to good governance and other best practices . . . and consistently executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way.”

According to Charity Navigator, only 20% of the organizations they review have received at least two consecutive 4 star evaluations.

“This ‘exceptional’ designation from Charity Navigator differentiates Nebraska Children from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust,” writes Dugan.

View Nebraska Children’s full Charity Navigator profile now.

Nebraska Children is proud of this designation, and will continue making the greatest impact possible for the most vulnerable in our state through solid financial practices and open information sharing with our donors and our partner communities.

If you’re ready to become part of our family of donors, visit our donation page now.

Preschool: Helping your child get the most out of schooling at ages 3-4

The purpose of preschool

High-quality preschool programs are designed to help prepare children for kindergarten in several ways. Two of the most important areas are:

  1. Optimizing social-emotional skills by giving 3-4 year olds the opportunity to practice these skills in a safe, supportive environment
  2. Getting children accustomed to the structure of a classroom environment.

While your child is in preschool, you can help them develop basic skills by:

  • Being sure not to pressure your child into reading and writing. Making these activities seem like a task instead of a joy is a quick way to take the fun out of learning.
  • Giving your child opportunities to sort and classify different objects. Sorting playing cards, identifying items of certain colors on car rides, and separating dinosaur toys from zoo animal toys are all good ways to practice discernment skills.
  • Making reading and writing part of daily life. Have paper and crayons around and encourage your child to play with them. Have your child make up stories for picture books.
  • Playing rhyming games to help your child start to recognize similar sounds.
  • Encouraging your child to do new things, and then praising him when he does it all by himself
  • Reminding your child of your expectations for behavior. When you’re entering the grocery store, for example, you can say something like, “Remember when we’re shopping, we don’t touch things. I’ll remind you by saying ‘Hands up.’”
  • Making sure your child has opportunities to work on projects and share toys with other children. It’s good practice!
  • Getting a pair of children’s scissors and some pencils for your child so she can practice writing and cutting.

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Smart Starts: School Readiness Begins at Birth

Building the brain from the beginning.

By the time a child turns 3, his brain is 85% the volume of an adult brain. That means that nearly all of the neural connections that will ever form have already been set. These three years are when the neurological tracks are laid—and all future learning will ride those tracks. The quality of those early neural connections is of paramount important to success in kindergarten and in life.



Brains are built from the bottom up. The basic sensory skills develop first, followed by language connections. Both of these areas reach peak development during the first year of life. These skill sets serve as the basis for higher cognitive functions, which reaches a developmental peak between ages 1 and 5.

These critical skills are formed when children have safe, secure relationships with parents and other caregivers. And it’s these executive functions—self-control, emotional regulation, working memory, empathy and resilience—that enable a child to succeed in kindergarten. And unless the basic sensory and language connections are made early, these higher cognitive functions
may not develop optimally.



What baby and toddler brains need: Stability and Stimulation

To develop in a healthy way, young minds need stability and stimulation, through secure attachments to caring adults.

Stability comes from nurturing relationships

When a baby is safe, loved, and bonded to her caregivers, healthy brain development is practically a foregone conclusion. While all brains undergo stress, there’s a difference between beneficial stress and toxic stress. Beneficial stress challenges the developing brain to form new connections, especially when there’s a nurturing caregiver to help guide the child’s reaction. Toxic stress, on the other hand, can derail normal brain development and causes a physical interruption in how neural connections are built. Healthy, secure relationships with adults an mitigate the effects of toxic stress. But if those relationships are absent, the impact of unhealthy stressors may be powerful and life long.



Toxic stressors such as neglect, abuse, instability and ongoing threats compromises the ability of a child’s brain to form the connections required for healthy executive function. According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child:

The brain regions and circuits associated with executive functioning have extensive interconnections with deeper brain structures that control the developing child’s responses to threat and stress. This implies that the developing executive functioning system both influences and is affected by the young child’s experience and management of threat, stress and strong emotions.

The number of toxic stress exposures or risk factors compounds negative outcomes for early childhood brain development. Damage to the developing executive functioning system shows up in as problem behaviors in the learning environment—inability to stay on task, losing control of emotions frequently, failure to retain information.

What does this all mean? Making sure that babies and toddlers have safe, nurturing relationships is critical to their healthy brain development and their future success in school and life.

Stimulation comes from healthy, ongoing interactions

Tiny brains are built interaction by interaction. Each positive interaction creates a neural connection. Children who have healthy relationships with parents and caregivers, and are receiving the stimulation and interactions they need, develop a strong, complex neural network and the social and emotional skills that matter for kindergarten success.

From birth, here are some ways that you can stimulate your baby’s brain:

  • Talk – No matter what you’re doing with your baby, talk through it. The sound of your voice is soothing to her, and hearing all of your words are a source of endless stimulation.
  • Respond – When your baby needs something (even when it’s just attention) provide it. This lets them know that they are safe and their needs will be met.
  • Read – Log some quality lap time by reading to your child, pointing out words and pictures. And provide brightly-colored books for your baby to look at, play with and chew on.
  • Play – Peekaboo, This Little Piggy and the Itsy Bitsy Spider are wonderful games to stimulate young minds and help bond your child to you.
  • Smile and make faces – Seeing your face being happy or silly helps babies make the connection between feeling and actions. It begins to help her identify emotions.
  • Serve-and-return communications – When your baby starts experimenting with sounds, echo those sounds back to her. Or act as though you’re having a conversation. This type of interaction is a powerful builder of language connections in the brain.
  • Praise – Show delight in your baby or toddler in all of their positive activities. This encourages positive behaviors, and provides a clear comparison when negative behaviors occur. For a child who is used to receiving praise, the absence of attention or praise is usually punishment enough to correct a behavior.

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Starting Kindergarten in Nebraska: What you need to know

early childhood education nebraska, bryan community high school
Payton showing Maddie how to finger paint, while one of the center’s para-educator supports the interaction

All children who turn 5 on or before July 31 are eligible to start public kindergarten in the state of Nebraska. No matter what their abilities, academic skills or background, Nebraska schools will be ready to meet their needs.

Even if a child doesn’t begin school the year they turn 5, Nebraska state law requires that they begin school the year they turn 6 before December 31.

Enrollment checklist:

  • Find your child’s original birth certificate. If a new certificate needs to be ordered, you may
    order one through the Vital Records Department at Health and Human Services.
  • Contact the school your child will be attending and ask how and when to enroll.
  • Request information about school expectations, rules and classroom daily routines.
  • Make a note of your school’s unique start and dismissal times, and consider your transportation and child care needs.
  • If you need after-school care for your child, ask your school if they have an option available.

What if your child doesn’t quite make the July 31 cutoff? For families who feel that they’re children are developmentally ready, there may be a way to enroll their children in public kindergarten early.

All Nebraska schools will conduct an early entry assessment of your child to determine their readiness to join kindergarten prior to turning 5. Contact your school as early as possible to discuss the procedure for early entry assessment. Many schools conduct assessments only once, in the Spring, so if you miss it, you’ll have to wait until next year anyway.

Let’s say your child has turned 5 years old before July 31. But you don’t feel that they’re truly “ready” to start kindergarten. If you wish, you may keep your child out of kindergarten to give him another year to mature.

This practice, sometimes called “redshirting,” has in the past been used to give kids an added physical or academic advantage among their kindergarten peers. The research, however, doesn’t show any lasting academic advantage.

While children who are redshirted may start school a bit ahead of the game, by third grade, they’re usually on par with their peers. In fact, many kids who are redshirted may even regress during kindergarten because they’re not being challenged enough to meet their developmental needs.

Whether or not to redshirt your child is a personal choice, but should be considered carefully.
Kindergarten has changed a lot since you were a child. If you have concerns abut the expectations of your child, talk to the school and get more information. Things to consider if you decide to hold your child back a year:

  • What skills are you going to work with him on in the meantime?
  • What resources or programs will be available to him?
  • How much has your child developed in the last 6 months? it may be hard to imagine how much he may develop between enrollment and when school starts. He may be more ready by then.
  • Remember, you can register for school in the spring and opt not to have your child start in the fall if you feel she’s not developmentally ready.

Want to know more about Kindergarten readiness in Nebraska? Download the eBook.


Project Everlast Councils Celebrate Foster Youth Awareness Month

This May, Project Everlast youth councils across the state held events to celebrate Foster Youth Awareness Month. Here are just a few of the outstanding events that the young people put together.


The Lincoln council held a hot dog and hamburger fundraiser at the Bay, where they showed a video to raise awareness of what it was like to be a teenager in the foster care system.


The Grand Island council worked with the local CASA chapter to hold the Superhero Run to raise awareness of youth in foster care. View the local coverage of this event now.


The Omaha council held their annual recognition event, where each young adult received an award for accomplishments of the year — like graduating high school, getting a job, staying sober and more. One of the most touching times of the night came when the youth presented a video that they created for their Outstanding Volunteer of the Year.


The North Platte council celebrated Foster Care Awareness Month with an open mic night at a local coffee house.

Sixpence Early Learning Fund awards 16 new grants


The Trustees of the Sixpence Early Learning Fund announced this week that 16 high-quality early childhood programs serving at-risk infants and toddlers across the state will receive grant awards totaling approximately $2 million, beginning July 1, 2015.

Sixpence grants are intended to build new early childhood programs or expand existing services to address the developmental needs of Nebraska’s youngest children at risk.

This brings the statewide total up to 31 grantee sites, serving nearly 1,000 at-risk babies and toddlers.

“We know for a fact that children’s preparedness to enter kindergarten and thrive in the K-12 system depends on the quality of their earliest learning experiences,” said Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, Commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education. “Sixpence is about creating the kinds of high-quality early experiences that reduce the achievement gap in our state and improve children’s chances of lifelong success.”

“Sixpence pursues its goal by helping Nebraska parents provide safe, stimulating, supportive environments and relationships during the critical early years of life,” said Amy Bornemeier, grant administrator for the fund. “This is especially important for families who face significant challenges in meeting the developmental needs of their youngest children.”

Sixpence grants are awarded to community partnerships through local school districts. The grants make it possible for communities to provide an array of resources and services such as high-quality child care and specialists who work with individual families to improve parent-child interactions. “Sixpence partnerships are flexible and highly responsive to local needs,” said Bornemeier. “Communities can help families with young children more efficiently and effectively when they understand how to organize and make the most of their local resources. Sixpence helps make that happen.”

Sixpence is an innovative, results-driven model for early childhood development in Nebraska. It represents a collaboration between the Nebraska Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and private investors at the state and local level.

“Our partners and donors demand a high degree of accountability for the dollars they invest,” said Bornemeier. “Sixpence grantees are held to a rigorous evaluation process conducted by world-class researchers at Munroe-Meyer Institute to ensure we’re seeing the kinds of outcomes we ought to expect from high-quality programs.”

Bornemeier also noted that Sixpence grantees are required to match their grant awards with local funds to demonstrate a commitment to this level of early childhood education. Approximately $2 million in local resources was raised to leverage the $2 million disbursed directly as Sixpence grants in the latest awards.

The following school districts are recipients of the June 2015 Sixpence grant awards:

  • Auburn Public Schools
  • Crete Public Schools
  • Falls City Public Schools
  • Fremont Public Schools
  • Garden County Public Schools
  • Hastings Public Schools
  • Kearney Public Schools
  • Lexington Public Schools
  • Millard Public School
  • Norfolk Public School
  • Omaha Public School – Early Learning Center
  • Omaha Public School – Educare
  • Papillion-LaVista Public School
  • Schuyler Public School
  • Scottsbluff Public School
  • Seward, Centennial and Milford Public Schools Consortium

“Sixpence is a far-reaching investment in our state,” said Cara Small, who was appointed to the Sixpence Board of Trustees by Governor Ricketts earlier this year. “It’s preparing more Nebraska children to succeed not only in school, but in life. That means more graduates with marketable skills, fewer young people entering the criminal justice system, healthier and safer communities, and a stronger economy.”

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