Is Your Child Ready for Preschool?

How to make a tough decision the right decision

by kathy sena

The preoccupation with numbers begins even before the umbilical cord is cut, as excited new parents, almost unconsciously, start counting fingers and toes. Before long, we begin noting “milestones” — recording first steps and first words. And while, by a child’s third birthday, Mom and Dad have usually stopped logging every developmental stride in the baby book, a new question begins to crop up:

“Is my child ready for preschool?”

A couple of generations ago, only a small minority of kids went to preschool. In 1965, just 5 percent of three-year-olds and 16 percent of four-year-olds attended, according to U.S. government statistics. Today, more than 40 percent of three-year-olds and more than two-thirds of four-year-olds are enrolled. The feeling that “everybody’s doing it” can make parents feel pressured to enroll their child.

When her son, Nicholas, was about to turn three, Deena Nenad assumed he’d begin preschool right after his birthday “because all my friends’ kids were starting preschool at three,” she says. But after Nicholas started school, “He was crying the whole time and fighting with other kids. He’d tell us, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t want to go,’ says Nenad. “The director told me there was no reason kids have to start at three, so we took him out.”

When Nicholas tried preschool again at age four, “He did great, and he really loved it,” says Nenad. “I’m glad we waited.”

Known Benefits

Educators have long praised preschool as a way to get kids off to a great start — emotionally, socially and intellectually. University of California, Berkeley researchers found, in one study, that the benefits of attending preschool prior to kindergarten contribute significantly to a child’s later success in school.

The study showed that enrollment in preschool improved the cognitive development of children to the extent that it could help bridge the achievement gap between low-income and high-income families. As early as the fourth grade, children who had attended preschool displayed a greater advantage in both reading and math. That’s because these children had exposure to the school and learning environment before “school” even started, the researchers concluded.

But how do parents decide when preschool is right for their child? As the Nenad family learned, sometimes you just have to give it a try and then determine how your child is adjusting after the first week or two. But there are some guidelines that may help, experts say.

Maturity, Not Age

“All children can benefit from one year of preschool before entering kindergarten, especially if they’re in a developmentally appropriate curriculum,” says Bonnie Bruce, a child-development specialist in private practice in Huntington Beach, California. But it’s important for parents to know their child’s needs and maturity level, she emphasizes. “Not all children should enter preschool based on a birthday. You can’t teach maturation,” says Bruce.

While intellectual skills will becoming increasingly important in early elementary school, now’s not the time to focus heavily on such things, says psychologist Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! (Viking). “The cognitive stuff will come at a certain point,” he says. Parents need to remember that preschool readiness is “more about emotional and social development and about getting along with other kids.”

Potty Training

While some preschools will accept children who aren’t potty trained, the majority will expect kids to be pretty independent here. So don’t rush preschool entry if your child isn’t confident in this area, our experts advise.

Occasional accidents aren’t unexpected, though, so be sure to reassure your child that all is well if he’s had an accident. Keep an extra supply of clothing in your preschooler’s cubby and handle the accident matter-of-factly. Starting about now, kids become quite concerned with being embarrassed in front of friends.

If You Decide to Wait

Even if your child isn’t yet ready for school, you can provide experiences that will help prepare him to enjoy a preschool environment. Now’s the time to arrange play dates, neighborhood play groups and Mommy-and-Me classes, suggests Bruce. All will help your child learn social skills that will serve her well in preschool and beyond.

Making the Transition

Ready for school? There are many simple things you can do to make those first days and weeks go more smoothly:

Read all about it. Head to the library or bookstore and share a few books about going to school — and separating from Mom and Dad — for the first time.

Plan a visit. A few days before school starts, walk the preschool grounds together, suggests Bruce. Introduce your child to his teacher, locate the bathroom, meet any classroom pets and check out classroom activities that you can talk about at home. When visiting with the teacher, you may want to ask about school routines and then try to follow some of them at home, suggests Becci Lukes, a preschool director in Mission Viejo, California. “Making home and school routines similar is reassuring for children,” says Lukes.

Tell your child what to expect. Be specific, suggests Manhattan Beach, California elementary school teacher and former preschool teacher Amanda Wishner. “Discuss what will happen on the first day of school,” she advises. “Say something like ‘I’ll stay 10 minutes, and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to leave.’” Explaining what will happen during the school day, and telling your child when you’ll return, will also make her feel more secure. “And you may want to make the first day or two a little shorter,” until your child gets more familiar with her new surroundings, adds Wishner.

Bring a reminder of home. When his older son, Ben, entered preschool, Alan Fields of Boulder, Colorado says he and his wife found that “sending something from home, like a comfort item or a picture of the family,” helped ease the transition. Bringing a favorite book or toy for “share day” also helps strengthen the home-school connection.

Don’t linger when saying goodbye. “We found that it was best not to hang around,” when dropping off their son, says Fields. If your child begins crying when it’s time for you to leave, lingering at the door usually makes things worse, teachers say. Fortunately, the tears usually don’t last more than a few minutes. In fact, the beginning of preschool can be tougher on parents than kids, says Wishner. “So feel free to call the school later in the day, just to ask how your child is doing, especially those first few days,” she suggests.

Bring your camera. Take pictures of your child at school, enjoying his new friends and surroundings, and help him put together a simple “My Preschool” collage or scrapbook at home. As you look at the photos together, talk about story time, snack time and your child’s favorite classroom activities.

In the end, Wishner sums up the experts’ opinions pretty well: “It scares me that people worry about preschool readiness so much,” she says, adding that preschool should be a fun time, not a source of worry for parents or kids. “Academic pressure starts soon enough, with homework now being assigned in kindergarten,” she adds.

So enjoy this carefree time in your child’s life. When you just naturally begin to talk about the fun of preschool, your child will pick up on your attitude and will look forward to the experience, too, Wishner suggests.

And be sure to keep that paperweight made from your child’s hand print, the crayon drawing of the class parakeet and the water-color painting titled “My Family” in a very safe place. Because — as grandparents everywhere can attest — children go from being preschoolers to being high schoolers in the blink of an eye.  SFM

Kathy Sena is an award-winning parenting writer and columnist and the mother of a 13-year-old son (who was in preschool just yesterday). Visit her parenting blog at www.parenttalktoday.com.