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?” This question is rising to many parents’ minds as we transition from summer into fall.
A couple of generations ago, only a small minority of kids went to preschool. In 1965, just five percent of 3-year-olds and 16 percent of 4-year-olds attended, according to U.S. government statistics. Today, more than 40 percent of 3-year-olds and more than two-thirds of 4-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.”
Educators have long praised preschool as a way to get kids off to a great start — emotionally, socially and intellectually. 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. 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 are 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.”
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, 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 playgroups and mommy-and-me classes, suggests Bruce. All will help your child learn social skills that will serve her well in preschool and beyond.
The summer before starting preschool may be the perfect time for kids to get their feet wet — perhaps even literally. Many preschools have shorter summer programs that may include gym classes, swimming or other summer activities. Some offer shorter schedules or weeklong, morning-only camps that may be just the right introduction for a child who’s a bit hesitant about school.
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.
— Kathy Sena is an award-winning parenting writer and columnist and the mother of a 12-year-old son (who was in preschool just yesterday).