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Is Your Child Ready for Preschool?
A guide to understanding signs of preschool readiness
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Among the many tough decisions parents face in the first few years of their child's life is the question of when (or if) to send their child to preschool. Because schooling isn't required until kindergarten or even first grade in many states, and since preschool programs begin anywhere from ages 2 to 4, it can be challenging to know when the "right" time is to enroll your child. Because there's no one-size-fits-all checklist, we consulted with a handful of experts to help you figure out if your child is ready for preschool.
First, consider your motivation for enrolling your child in preschool. If you're at home full-time, would preschool give you a much-needed break? Is your child in need of greater stimulation than you or your current childcare provider can offer?
Rest assured, there's no wrong answer. Dr. Amanda Moreno, PhD, a developmental psychologist and early learning researcher at the University of Denver, says, "Even if you want to send your child just to 'get a break,' you can feel good about the fact that preschool is providing you the gift of sanity which helps you be a better parent, and as a bonus, your child is gaining new skills and probably enjoying himself to boot." So save the self-imposed guilt trips for another time.
Adam Gregor for Veer
The most important factor to consider when deciding to enroll your child in preschool is whether or not they are in good physical health.
Pediatrician Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky, director of Belilovsky Pediatrics in Brooklyn, NY, says that the first question he asks parents is, "'How many children attend the school?', which will determine how bad any epidemics will be. The more children, the greater the chance of your child getting sick." If your child is prone to superficial infections like ear infections or bronchitis, Dr. Belilovsky suggests that you consider keeping them out of a group environment like school for longer, unless absolutely necessary (for example, if both parents work and their child must attend a daycare or preschool).
Time Away from Parents
Is your child comfortable being apart from you? If so, this is an excellent indicator of preschool readiness, according to Dr. Belilovsky.
But if your child isn't ready right now, don't fret. Zio Perez, a preschool teacher at the Nettelhorst School in Chicago, assures parents that, "In most cases, children will calm down within 15 minutes of parents leaving." If you're concerned about having to pry your child from your legs on Day 1, Dr. Moreno suggests doing some trial mini-separations and playdates in the month prior to the start of school. For more tips, read these suggestions on how to deal with school separation anxiety.
Interaction with Other Kids
So much of the preschool experience is about learning how to cooperate and coexist with other kids. To help prepare your child, look for opportunities for her to play with others at the library, the local playground, and anywhere else that fits naturally into your life.
Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery School, says, "Remember that your kid doesn't need to be ready for preschool when you're applying, which may be months in advance of actually entering the school. Consider that gap as a period to help your child become more mindful of sharing and taking turns. Kids should be able to understand appropriate behavior even if they don't model it."
It's an urban myth that all preschools require new students be potty trained upon entry. If your preschool does, ask about the specifics: for example, are disposable pull-ups okay if diapers aren't? Where are the bathrooms? How are accidents handled?
And if you're struggling with potty training, take comfort in knowing that relief may well be in your near future. Pediatric Occupational Therapist Rachel Rudman, creator of Grasshopper Preschool Prep Kits, says, "Often children get motivated to actually become potty trained in school when they see their peers are." Remember, potty training is only one piece of the readiness puzzle, so don't put too much pressure on yourself.
Wondering how the little boy flitting from toy to toy and room to room at home will ever manage to sit still in preschool? Don't worry about holding your child to unrealistically high standards. Rudman suggests that kids should be able to concentrate for the number of minutes equal to their age, for example, a 3-year-old should be able to concentrate for three minutes. She says, "Difficulty with concentration should not be a reason to refrain from sending kids to school. If anything, being in a school environment should help children improve their ability to focus." So, if your child is already able to focus on a puzzle or draw for a few minutes on his own, you're in good shape.
To Nap or Not to Nap
Whether your child is still napping or has long since given up the mid-day snooze, preschool will definitely keep him busy, regardless of whether it's a half-day or full-day program.
Dr. Moreno says, "For classes with 2-year-olds and under, napping should be 'on demand' -- that is, children sleep when tired, and thus there is no need to have a particular nap schedule. For preschool classes in the 1-2 years prior to kindergarten, generally there is one nap in the middle of the day." Prepare to make adjustments: if your child has already given up her nap, try to get her accustomed to the idea of quiet time -- especially if she'll be staying in a full-day program.
Ability to Communicate
Sure, you can probably understand most everything your child says, but can everyone else? Consider how well your little one is able to express his needs. Tracey Frost, owner and co-founder of Citibabes, says one indication that a child may not yet be ready for preschool is if he is truly struggling to communicate -- which would create a frustrating situation for the child, the teacher and the child's classmates. Frost adds that successful communication doesn't need to be solely verbal, but a child does need to be willing to express his needs and desires to his teacher, for example, tugging on a sleeve to go to the bathroom or pointing to indicate a desired activity or object.
Comfort with Routine
If you don't currently follow a regular routine at home, you may want to consider adopting a version of one to help prepare your child for the transition to preschool.
Preschool programs run with varying schedules, allowing you to pick how many hours and how many days you want your child to attend. Once they get there, your little one can expect a predictable order of events, like circle time, play time, snack time, meal time and naptime.
So what's the best schedule for your child? Dr. Moreno recommends a minimum of three days a week, to avoid the continuous cycle of re-adjustment that '2-day-a-weekers' feel. She thinks half-day programs are, "Fine if they are of reasonable length (3-4 hours)," but suggests longer days if you plan to enroll your child in a full-time kindergarten next year.
Boys vs. Girls
Parents of boys may feel particular concern about sending their child to preschool on the early side, given the fact that boys often develop speech later than girls. But, there is little reason to worry.
Dr. Moreno explains that the similarities between boys and girls are actually far greater than the differences, especially in young children. Although some research indicates that at five years of age, boys average about six months behind girls in terms of social-emotional development and fine motor skills, there is no set rule, and, reminds Dr. Moreno, "Certain aspects of 'boy-ness,' such as a high energy level, can be channeled very effectively in preschool." So, relax and know that there is surely a place for your child within a preschool classroom.
Ages & Stages
Remember that the expectations for socialization vary depending on the age of the child. Rudman suggests that, "Two-year-olds should show some interest in socializing with other children. Three- and 4-year-olds are expected to have had some experience with sharing and listening to instruction. Socially, they are expected to refrain from hurting other children and be involved in cooperative play."
Early Childhood Skills to Practice
Though these skills do not need to be mastered in advance of preschool, it may be helpful to practice some of the things in this list from Stacey Kannenberg, Wisconsin delegate to the Mom Congress and author of Let's Get Ready for Kindergarten! and Let's Get Ready for First Grade! And if your child can already do one or more of these skills, give yourself a pat on the back.
- Share, take turns and listen quietly
- Wait patiently and use words to communicate
- Recognize and know your full name
- Know your parents and/or caregiver's first and last name
- Use toilet by yourself
- Dress yourself
- Know how to zip, snap, tie, button and fasten your clothing
- Recite and recognize alphabet letters
- Recognize your left and right hand
- Know basic colors, shapes and numbers 0-20
- Recognize a penny, nickel, dime, quarter and dollar bill
- Use positional words (over, under, up, down)
- Print your first name, uppercase for first letter only
- Know your address and phone number
- Know how to use a pencil, crayons, glue and scissors
List copyright Stacey Kannenberg, Cedar Valley Publishing.
Learning through Play
Kannenberg suggests that the easiest way to empower a preschooler into the learning process is, "To make it so engaging, exciting and fun that they don't even realize they are learning." If you'd like to help your preschooler-to-be in his learning process, Kannenberg offers these ideas for turning learning moments into play and game time:
- Count how many blue cars you see on the way to the grocery store.
- Name colors and shapes in our world while driving or exploring inside our house.
- Scramble 26 letters and numbers 0-10 inside a hat, and name them as you pull them out.
- Sort the coins by penny, nickel, dime and quarter.
- See how far you can count to 100 together while waiting for the tub to fill up.
List copyright Stacey Kannenberg, Cedar Valley Publishing.
When you are shopping for schools, be sure to select a program that won't push your child too far out of his comfort zone -- allowing for a positive first educational experience.
If you really don't think your child is ready, but don't have other child care options, consider a school with a looser approach toward separation. Frost, whose Citibabes group hosts its own preschool, acknowledges the school's rather flexible separation policy. She says, "Parents need to choose the right program for their family. There are plenty of programs that are very strict on separation, but we make a commitment to parents that we'll allow them to sit in a classroom until their child is comfortable, which may mean weeks or even months."