Parents marvel at how much their child’s brain soaks up in 1st grade. Parents also can expect big changes socially as their child becomes pickier about friendships and more aware of the school as a community. Yet to the relief of moms and dads, 1st graders still retain much of the innocence and silliness they had in kindergarten.

“The kids are just a lot of fun at that age,” says Rhina Fernandes Williams, an assistant professor of multicultural education at Georgia State University. “They come into a sense of who they are and what they like. They are really interacting with and learning from other kids.”

For many children, 1st grade is a longer day than they were used to in kindergarten. They also probably spend more time sitting at a desk. Gradually, the 1st grade teacher will introduce longer sequences of instructions and expect kids to do more for themselves.

As in kindergarten, routine is extremely important to students in 1st grade. Some may be overwhelmed by the increased amount of academic work and higher expectations.

Parents can help their 1st grader adjust by enforcing a familiar routine at home, sharing in their child’s excitement about new friendships and learning milestones, and keeping in close contact with the teacher. It is also crucial for children to get a good night’s sleep each night.

Experts also recommend limiting time spent in front of the television or computer and giving kids opportunities to explore the outdoors and build friendships with children of the same age. At this age, children are more likely to choose friends of the same gender and to identify with a particular child as a “best friend.”

Developing Motor Skills, Sense of Humor

In 1st grade, kids become more aware of the behavior of other children and will try to mimic them. They will also be more aware of their siblings and where they fit within the family birth order.

First-graders display a range of developmental abilities. Some kids are riding bikes with ease while others may be less physically coordinated. Some will be able to write legibly and draw detailed pictures; others will have large, awkward lettering. In the classroom, 1st grade teachers will take these differences into account when handing out grades and assignments.

A major social change for many 1st graders is that they start to develop their sense of humor. “Some of them really get the knock-knock jokes,” Fernandes Williams says.

When a 1st grader finds something funny, he’ll often want to repeat the story or the punch line over and over. This is normal even though it may drive parents nuts. Parents may cringe at the thought of hearing a particular joke for the hundredth time, but telling jokes is a sophisticated form of learning and should be encouraged as long as the jokes are tasteful.

Parent-Child Communication

Grade 1 is not too early for kids to become stingy with information they share with their parents about what happens at school. Parents can get through to kids by asking more specific questions. If a parent asks “What did you do at school today?” the answer might be “Nothing.” But asking “Who did you eat lunch with today?” may prompt the child to be more forthcoming.

Some 1st graders will remain tight-lipped. Parents should feel comfortable asking questions of their child’s teacher, such as “Who did my child play with today?” “Who are her friends?” “Is she shy?” and “Is he making an effort to make friends?” Such questions are welcome and appropriate, Fernandes Williams says. “Parents may shy away from asking too many questions of the teacher, but they need to keep pushing.”

Much of a child’s growth during 1st grade is social as well as academic, and often the two go hand in hand, such as activities where children will work together in groups to tackle a math word problem.

Relating to Others

Kim Madison, a teacher at Oak Grove Elementary in Peachtree City, Ga., teaches her students to think of the class as a family. “It takes all of us to make it work,” she tells them. She reminds kids that adults also have responsibilities and rules they have to follow. “I ask them, ‘What would the world be like without any rules?’”

Madison encourages her students to help come up with rules for the school year. She starts small with their responsibilities and gradually raises the bar. “The more structure, the better at this age,” she explains.

In kindergarten and preschool, children were content to be friends with everyone or to be “best friends” with the child sitting next to them in the cafeteria. By 1st grade, some kids will start making choices about friendships. “They are still accepting of each other,” Madison says. “We tell them they are all special.”

First-graders are very conscious of fairness and respond well when Madison encourages them to practice the golden rule. “I tell them to treat others with respect and kindness, even if you don’t want to be best friends,” she says. “And I remind them that the world would be boring if we were all alike.”

For more information, read “1st Grade Academics: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.