Is My Child Ready for Preschool?
Your little one isn’t a baby anymore and it’s time to start thinking about preschool. How do you know if your angel is ready? How can you help him prepare for the transition?
Most preschools accept children between ages 3 and 5, though some take kids as young as 2½. According to First 5 California, which provides information and resources about children under 5, research shows that “kids who attend quality preschool have higher math and reading skills, are better prepared for kindergarten, behave better in class and are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.”
First 5 California says children may be ready to attend preschool if they have learned some independence and can wash their own hands, sleep alone and eat lunch without help. It will also help if they have spent time away from parents and are used to being around other children.
Most programs want children to be potty trained. It’s difficult for a teacher managing up to 20 kids to change diapers (though some will do it for an extra fee). But if your child isn’t ready yet, it’s better to wait until they are and not force the issue, says Kathleen White, chair of City College of San Francisco’s Child Development and Family Studies Department.
“A child has to be developmentally ready. That includes being able to verbalize when to go, wanting to go and being able to do some clothing manipulation,” she says. “Kids that get pressured to potty train take longer and have anxiety about it.”
While some children potty train quickly, others – especially boys – may take longer. Other children may be comfortable using the toilet at home but not other places.
“Wait until the time is right,” White says. “Wait until they’ve been potty trained for a while and you’ve tested it at social situations and other houses.”
White also says a child should be able to communicate enough to get his needs met.
“Some children are not able to communicate with others that easily – that’s based on their temperament,” she says. A child doesn’t have to have advanced verbal skills but should at least be comfortable enough to come up to a teacher and describe what he or she needs or show it through body language.
Another factor to consider is whether your child can stay awake or has the energy for preschool. If your child still naps in the afternoon, an afternoon class may not be the best fit. Parents should ask the preschool if they have nap times.
Deporah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, says parents should also help children develop some self-regulation skills like not interrupting when others are talking. Parents can help their kids follow directions in activities that are appropriate for their age. They can also teach their little ones not to grab a toy from others but to ask for it first. If the kids haven’t mastered that skill yet, don’t worry – that’s what preschool will teach as well.
Library storytimes or religious education classes can give kids some preliminary experiences with other kids.
Children can practice their independence by brushing their hair, putting on their own clothes and practicing snaps and buttons. Or to make the whole thing easier, parents can buy their kids slip-on pants so they won’t have to struggle with buttons and zippers in class.
Parents should also make sure their children have experiences away from them, Stipek adds.
“Give them opportunities to be left so preschool isn’t the first time they have been left without a parent or sibling there,” she says. “It can be in play groups or with cousins.”
This will also give children the chance to learn that parents come back. Part of their anxiety is wondering if their parents are going to leave them forever.
Stipek suggests bringing children to preschool before they’re dropped off on the first day. If it’s possible, parents should bring their kids when class is in session. If not, they can perhaps bring them to the playground on the weekend.
“Talk about how fun it’s going to be and all the toys the kid can play with,” she says. “Parents should be positive about this experience. Kids pick up on whether they should be afraid or excited to some degree from how their parents approach the whole thing.”
Fear comes from not knowing, says Joanne Adan, founder and head teacher of Bright Beginnings Montessori Preschool in San Mateo.
“We help them with the knowledge of the experience of knowing what’s going to happen,” says Adan, who has 32 years experience teaching preschool.
She asks parents to visit with their children as many times as possible before their first day of school. She also invites families to attend her school’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations before starting the new school year in the fall. This gives parents and children the chance to meet each other and hopefully start some lasting friendships, Adan says.
Once school starts, parents should set up a drop-off routine that makes children feel safe and secure. Maybe it’s giving the child one hug and one kiss and then handing him off to the teacher. Staying too long gives the child false hope that the parent is going to stay all day.
“You need to leave,” Adan says. “Trust needs to be with the teacher.”
Her school is okay with allowing kids to cry if they miss their parents.
“We acknowledge that it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to miss Mom and Dad,” she says.
Kids can bring a stuffed animal or a doll to school if that provides comfort or can tote along a picture of their family.
Adan, who is also a mother, says she knows separation anxiety can be as hard at times on parents as on the children. One of her two daughters had to be peeled off her kicking and crying to attend school, while the other said “bye” and never looked back. As hard as it can be to leave a crying child, it can also prick at a parent’s heart when a child doesn’t seem to mind leaving home.
Finally, parents should make sure their children get enough sleep and get a decent meal before they go off to preschool. That will make the transition smoother and happier for everyone.
“Well-rested kids who have breakfast do better,” says White.
BIO: Lisa Renner is the San Francisco/Peninsula calendar editor for Bay Area Parent.
Preschool Prep Checklist
• Is your child potty trained, if required?
• Can he wash his hands?
• Does he sleep alone?
• Can he eat lunch without help?
• Can he express his needs?
• Has he been without Mom and Dad before?
• Does he still nap and, if so, does the school have a naptime?
• Will the school allow visits before the first day?
• Can your child bring a comfort item, such as a stuffed animal or family photo?
• Do you have a drop-off routine?
• Did he get a good night’s sleep and breakfast?