Is My Child Preschool Ready?

preschoolready
Image via Katie Hurley

Many parents struggle with the first big decision in a child's education: When to begin preschool. With the pushing down of education, parents often feel pressured to enroll in a preschool program the moment a child reaches 2 1/2 years of age. The truth is that there is no magic number for preschool readiness, and your child's personality plays a huge role in the decision.

My two kids were complete opposites when it came to preschool readiness, and they needed two very different programs. Imagine that? When you watch your kids for clues for readiness, you'll find that they tell you exactly what they need.

My daughter was ready when she was a little over three. She attended a fairly structured play-based school from 9am-12pm three days per week for two years. She loved it. She made friends. She learned. She made cool art projects.

There is no perfect age to begin preschool. Look for clues to determine readiness.

My son wasn't ready until he was almost four. With a late September birthday, he would either start early or start late. All signs pointed to late. He wasn't ready to separate. Fairly introverted, he preferred time at home playing with me. He liked outings to the park and Gymboree classes, but he also didn't mind if we missed them. Play was always enough for him. He attended a play-based preschool two mornings a week for two years. It was structured, but less so than the other one. It was also closer to home. And he loved it. His teachers understood his quiet ways and didn't push. He found his way there.

There is no easy answer when it comes to readiness, but you can look for signs of preschool readiness and find a program that fits with your child's personality.

preschool
Image via Flickr/ Andrew Dawes

Separation:

Most kids go through a period of separation anxiety at some point, and separation anxiety can ebb and flow. Just when you think your child is over the hump and separating with ease, it comes back. That's perfectly normal. The world can feel big and scary when you're small, and preschool age children are constantly bombarded with new information. Some of that information can cause them to seek the safety of their primary caregiver.

Does your child separate with ease? Does your child spend time with others without excessive tears and fears? If so, your child is probably ready to transition to preschool. If, on the other hand, your child is fearful of separation and clings to you like glue when it comes to separating, give it time. Forcing a child into preschool too soon can backfire and cause significant stress and anxiety. If work is the motivating factor, look for small childcare options that feel more like a playgroup (if possible). It's always a good idea to practice with close friends and relatives beginning six months before you make the transition.

{ MORE: Do You Know This About Preschool Readiness? }

preschool
Image via Flickr/ Robyn Jay

Social and emotional considerations:

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It doesn't matter what preschool program you choose, preschool is more about social skills than anything else. The biggest question you need to ask yourself is this: Is my child socially, emotionally, developmentally, and physically ready to separate for a few hours each day and be surrounded with other kids? Think twice before you answer.

What I didn't know before my daughter turned three is that she's prone to croup and has asthma. Preschool kids get sick. A lot. We had a very rough year the first year (and even worse in kindergarten). Take all angles into consideration.

Most preschool kids continue to engage in parallel play. By playing near one another and taking cues from each other, they learn and grow. Can your child share? Can your child follow simple directions? Can your child take turns? If not, don't worry. Those are all skills practiced at the preschool level. There will be some tears of frustration along the way.

If, however, your child avoids all other kids and struggles to interact at all, you might be wise to find a smaller, shorter introductory program before beginning preschool. My daughter started in the Gymboree School Skills program and it was the perfect transition from toddlerhood to preschool.

preschool
Image via Flickr/ madgerly

The basics:

Not all preschools have a potty training prerequisite, but some do. Try to avoid associating potty training with school for your child–that is a lot of pressure and can make school seem like a terrible place. You want your child's first school experience to be fun and engaging, not stressful and centered around using the potty. Look into several options and make the best fit for your child overall, including the potty training issue.

Preschools do follow a routine, even the play-based ones. There is always some structure to the day. If your child struggles with transitions (as in screaming and flailing when it comes time to change), you might hold off for a while. If your family is more laid back and doesn't follow much of a structure at home, now is a good time to consider implementing some routine to prepare your child.

Circle time is a big part of preschool, and kids love it. This is where the ability to focus comes into play. Try to not to worry too much, though. A four-year-old is really only expected to focus for 4-5 minutes at a time. Preschool teachers are the masters of meeting kids where they are and helping them thrive. They want your child to feel happy and successful.

{ MORE: Mom Confessions: I Never Thought I Would ... }

preschool
Image via Flickr/ Shanna Trim

The preschool dropout:

Not every preschool is the right match for every child and sometimes a child appears ready but struggles once he starts the program. There is no shame in pulling a child out of a preschool program if that child is under stress and struggling. Childhood is short. With the pushing down of academics all over this country, childhood is even shorter than it once was.

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The best part of preschool is that it is a fun and playful way to begin school. If your child isn't happy, take a break and try again the next year. Never be afraid to meet the emotional needs of your children. They will thank you for it down the line.

{ MORE: Preschool Etiquette: What You Need to Know }

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What do you think?

Is My Child Preschool Ready?

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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