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Starting School


Overview

For many kids, preschool is the first foray into the wider "big kid" world. But deciding when your child is ready for it  -- and later, for kindergarten  -- can be confusing. Read on to see how to figure out what's best for your child, and ways to ease the transition.


Is your child ready for preschool?

Good indicators that the answer is yes:

He knows what the potty is. Some preschools require that children be trained. Even if your child isn't, if he has almost mastered the toilet, he's probably ready to go to school.

He shows signs of independence. He can play by himself for a few minutes, and take care of himself in some ways, such as putting on his shoes.

He's starting to get comfortable around other people. Kids who go to daycare or have a regular sitter often take it better when they have to separate from you at preschool. But if you think your child will have a hard time, start introducing him to the idea by leaving him with other caregivers  -- your mom while you shop, for instance. Sign him up for a playgroup so he can get comfortable with other children.

He can follow simple instructions. At preschool, your child will be expected to follow simple rules, such as straightening the play area and hanging his coat in a closet. If you think this might be tough for him, start practicing at home by giving him responsibility for some daily routines, such as leaving his shoes by the front door or putting dirty dishes in the sink.

He's comfortable switching gears. Your child will have to follow a schedule when he's at preschool, so he'll need to make transitions throughout the day. You can help him get used to moving on to the next thing by giving him advance notice when he has to stop an activity at home ("After you finish that puzzle, it'll be time to rest").

If you're concerned that your child isn't ready for preschool, it's okay to start him the next semester or even hold off another year. It's important not to rush him into school too soon because it could make him feel like a failure when he has trouble keeping up.


Finding the right preschool

You think your child's ready. But what's the best preschool for her? What to keep in mind when you're gearing up for visits to each place:

* Make an appointment. Unannounced visitors can disrupt the kids, and you may not be allowed to tour the classrooms. However, the school should have an open-door policy that lets parents of enrolled kids come anytime.

* Try to schedule your visit during a break  -- it's easier for teachers to answer your questions then.

* Leave your child at home so that you're not distracted. (Bring her back later if the school meets your approval.)

When you visit, pay special attention to:

The space: Classrooms should be childproofed, bright, well-maintained, and organized into easily identifiable play areas. Toys and materials need to be stored within kids' reach. Look for labels on shelves, containers, and playthings  -- they encourage prereading skills. There should be cozy spots for playing alone or with friends, as well as a large area in which the whole class can participate in activities or storytime. Water fountains, toilets and sinks, tables and chairs, hooks, and cubbies should be kid-size, and artwork and other visual displays should be hung at children's eye level.

The curriculum: Young children learn through play, so the bulk of their day should be made up of free choice. The rest should be more structured, with time for listening to stories or working on art projects; there should be an emphasis on group activities like singing and sharing. Just as at home, a predictable schedule in school helps kids feel more secure. Many schools expect children to meet certain goals during the year; watch out for ones that seem too strict (count to 20 by December) and look for more socially oriented ones (play well with others).

The teachers: They should be approachable, flexible, and respectful. Children should be encouraged to work out their own disagreements, and a school's discipline policies should emphasize consequences for misbehavior rather than embarrassment, threats, or punishment.

The teacher/student ratio: For children over 4, the National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends one teacher for every ten students and no more than 20 children in a class.


Preparing for the first day

Ways to make the transition a little easier:

* Introduce your child to the teacher ahead of time so he'll see a familiar face in the classroom.

* Get the phone numbers of a few families of future classmates so you can arrange playdates before school even starts.

* If your child will be bringing meals or snacks to school, shop for a new lunch box together (and let him choose).

* Start some daily routines, such as an earlier bedtime or laying out his clothes the night before, in advance of the first day.

* Explain what to expect. Give him as many details as you can about what happens during a typical day: Kids paint, play outside, sing, and look at books.

* Mark school days on a special calendar. That way, he'll have a sense of when school begins and which days he'll be going.


Solving common preschool problems

Separation anxiety
You try to drop off your child at school and she shrieks as though you're never coming back.

The solution: Say your goodbyes and leave. She'll be fine. Really! Every time you leave your child at school and come back at the end of the day as you promised, you're helping to build her security and confidence.

Whatever you do, don't sneak out when she's not looking; that will only make her cling harder next time. Instead, tell her you're going now and that you'll be back that afternoon. You might create a goodbye ritual, such as a kiss on each cheek and then a hug. And let her bring a special bear or blanket along (if the school allows it).

Social ostracism
You notice that your child is sitting by himself whenever you pick him up at the end of the day. He complains that he has no friends.

The solution: A good teacher will keep an eye out for unpleasant social dynamics; ask her what you can do to help your child fit in. Remind your child that making friends takes time, and that you often have to share them with other classmates.

You may also want to ask yourself: Are other kids really ostracizing my child, or might he be pushing them away? A shy child may not feel comfortable reaching out to other kids. Arranging playdates with them outside of school may help.

Biting
You get a call from school saying your child tried to bite another child in her class.

The solution: Although adults view biting as particularly barbaric, to a small child it's no different from kicking or hitting. When kids bite, it's often triggered by a frustrating loss of control (say, when a change in routine happens) or by not being able to communicate as effectively as others. Encouraging a child to express her anger or frustration with words instead  -- and praising her when she does  -- can go a long way toward curbing the habit.

Potty accidents
Your son is more or less potty trained when you sign him up for preschool. But a month in, he's having an accident every few days.

The solution: Potty accidents are common, and most teachers will understand this and accommodate the kids. Let your child's teacher know about any particular potty hang-ups, and simply continue to reinforce training at home. Added pressure will only make things worse.

Just make sure he has a change of clothes at school. Or send your child to school wearing his favorite big-kid underwear, with whatever cartoon character or action hero he likes most  -- it's an incentive to stay dry.

Backsliding
Crying jags, sulking, nighttime wake-up calls  -- don't be surprised if your preschooler suddenly starts behaving like a toddler again.

The solution: Regression doesn't necessarily mean that your child isn't ready for school. It's typically a sign that she's stressed out and needs support. Acknowledge that she's having a hard time. But tell her, "I know you can do this and I'm going to help you."

You may want to spend a little time at school, helping with a project or reading a story during circle time. If you can't, at least try to connect with her teacher at dropoff or pickup time  -- say hi and tell the teacher what's going on with your child and family.

Also, have some extra one-on-one time together at home, even if it's 10 or 15 minutes. Let her decide what you're going to do  -- that may give her the security and sense of control she needs. The good news is, regression is completely normal and usually lasts for only a few weeks.


Is your child ready for kindergarten?

Various factors could make delaying kindergarten a smart choice for your child. Some questions to ask yourself:

How mature is my child?
Experts say social and emotional maturity is the single most important consideration when weighing a child's readiness for kindergarten. One who is socially uncomfortable or emotionally insecure could very well be ostracized. For such a child, waiting a year can be a real boon.

What do the pediatrician and his teacher say?
Some schools administer a kindergarten-readiness screening (to test fine motor and gross motor skills, check to see if the kids know their letters and numbers, and so on). But this process doesn't always reveal a child's true temperament or potential. An evaluator (usually a kindergarten teacher) can't spend a significant amount of time getting to know a child in a natural setting. Plus, screenings generally take place several months before the school year starts, and a lot may change for a 4-year-old in that amount of time. It often helps to consult someone who's familiar with your child  -- his pediatrician or preschool teacher, or both.

Does he like to learn?
If so, even if he's not quite 5 yet, it may be worth sending him. Generally, bright children are also socially advanced, so you often don't have to worry that a precocious child will be at a disadvantage as one of the younger kids in the class.

Is he big (or small) for his age?
When it comes to kindergarten, size matters. So does temperament. Children who are shy and slow to warm up in social situations, and who are also small, might benefit from waiting a bit. But size shouldn't be your only criterion: We all know little dynamos who can run circles around everyone else.


Summary

Good preschools provide children with rich experiences that give them the social, emotional, and intellectual skills that will prepare them for the primary grades, and for life. But don't rush your child into it. Take your cues from her to see when she's ready.


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