Ask my mother-in-law about U.S. Geography and she throws her hands up in defeat. In her elementary school, geography was taught in the third grade — the year she arrived from Cuba. Instead of memorizing state capitals, she was busy learning a new language, culture and city.

Academically, third grade was a bust.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that story recently as I prepare to send my youngest to a preschool. He’s a rambunctious child whose English vocabulary is limited to the Scooby Doo theme song. (And ‘shut-up,’ but nobody is claiming that one!)

The one time we left him with someone other than our regular babysitter — while on vacation in Georgia — he wailed. When we returned two hours later, we could still hear his screams from beyond the door. “He was trying to tell us something, but we couldn’t understand what he was saying,” the nice young woman, who spoke only English, said.

(Me: #motheroftheyear #winning)

I am hoping his first day at school won’t be a repeat.

Intellectually, I know kids are resilient, and pick up languages quickly. I am definitely not worried about my son falling behind on his colors and letters. Emotionally, though, I can’t help but wonder how he’ll feel in those first months at school as he battles to understand and be understood.

He is a spitfire who won’t be ignored. I don’t want trying to communicate to feel like screaming into a wind tunnel.

So I called my friend, Dr. Lisa Lopez, seeking guidance on how to best prepare him (and myself) for the weeks and months to come. Lisa, a professor at the University of South Florida, specializes in dual language learning.

Here’s her advice for kids entering a classroom dominated by a language not their own:

1) Make sure your child knows a few basic words in English:  Teaching him words like “hi” and “bathroom” can help ease the transition, Lisa said. Kids in my son’s shoes go through four stages when they are in this position. First, they try to use their native language. When that doesn’t work, they enter a silent stage, as they try to assess the environment. At this point, they may act out in frustration because they can’t properly communicate, she said. It’s important to keep an open dialogue with the teacher to find the root cause of any behavior issues. Having an understanding of a few words will act as a bridge. Eventually, the students will move to mastering key phrases and then speaking more completely in the new language – which could take anywhere from a few months to a year, she said.

2) Keep pushing Spanish: Teach the few basic words, then leave the English to the school, Lisa said. At a young age, kids have a capacity for a limited number of words (for a 2-year-old, it’s 50 to 100.) The problem is, they may start increasing their English vocabulary at the expense of Spanish. To be truly bilingual, the child will need an equal input of both languages.

3) Emphasize the value of the home language: This, unfortunately, is where we have the most trouble — in  demonstrating why speaking Spanish is so important. Lisa said that kids need to know it’s useful to their lives, which you can do by  keeping up with Spanish-speaking family members, traveling, attending school or camp in Spanish — so that the value of the language is reinforced. “If kids are seeing that the language isn’t valued in the community, it’s going to be more fuel for the fire to not speak the language. That’s the most important piece.”

Clearly I have my homework to do.

{Photo via US Department of Education}

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