By the time a child is 3, she is usually ready for a regular experience outside the home with other children and adults. It's time to consider preschool. Preschool is defined technically as a half-day program for 2- to 5-year-olds, offering some structured activities and run by a teacher with specialized training in early-childhood development. The line between preschool and a center-based day care program is blurry. But generally speaking, most kids are ready for a shift at about age 3 to a larger and somewhat more structured experience.
The goals of preschool are to give a child a little sense of independence away from home, to teach her to negotiate relationships with other children, and to encourage her to interact with adults outside the family. Although social skills are the main focus, a good preschool also offers new things to explore, new experiences outside the home, and the chance to learn in a group setting. Parents should see their child growing in social skills, independence, and maturity and developing an excitement about learning and discovery. What's a "Good" School? What to Look For Questions You Need to Ask Cool Tool: Is My Child Really Ready for Preschool? What's a "Good" School?
Good preschools allow a child a lot of freedom to explore different activities; they encourage a sense of excitement with discovery and offer a child-centered experience. Those that push "academic skills" and are largely teacher directed only dampen motivation for learningand they aren't very successful, either, since preschoolers are not ready for formal training in reading and writing at this stage. Good-quality preschool enhances development, self-confidence, and self-regulation. Focus your preschool selection on a school that has these attributes and where you and your child are comfortable.
You'll have to visit several preschools before you can be sure of the right placement for your child and for you. Don't rely on recommendations only; take a firsthand look. You should be comfortable with the philosophy, the approach, the policies, and the personnel, particularly the director of the school. Invest some time at each school, and trust your instincts. You should also gather some specifics. Get references, but not just from happy parents; find out who's left the program and get in touch with those families to find out why. What to Look For
Questions You Need to Ask
- Small class size. Two- and 3-year-olds should be in groups of fewer than eight children. Four-year-olds can be in groups of up to 20 if there is an aide to assist the teacher, although a teacher/student ratio of 1:7 is best at these young ages.
- Special training. Teachers should have specialized training in early-childhood development, and the director should have a bachelor's or master's degree in this area. Continuing education should be part of the staff training.
- Stability. Good centers retain teachers, so ask about turnover. Turnover of more than 33 percent per year usually means something isn't right, in pay or morale or both. If a teacher is replaced every six months, watch out.
- Safety. The classroom and the play area should meet all applicable health and safety guidelines. Watch the kids while they play inside and outdoors to see if there are any hazards.
- Structure. The teacher should have a teaching plan so she is presenting learning and exploring opportunities in some kind of sequence, building on seasonal ideas and offering activities for a range of skill levels. There should be a daily schedule, which you should be able to examine. There also should be school policies for teaching, handling emergencies, and evaluating each child's adjustment and progress. This structure should be invisible to the child so he has a sense of freedom and support in a relaxed, calm atmosphere.
- Social climate. How does it feel to be a kid there? Watch how a teacher greets a child and helps him through the tough transition at the start of the day. Also observe how discipline is handled. Notice if it follows your own approach, or if it strikes you as too permissive or too severe. See how arguments and fights between kids are handled. These are inevitable and can be learning experiences if the teacher gives the children ways to handle their problems and disagreements. Watch how a sad or withdrawn child is managed. The approach here should be gentle and kind, aimed at keeping the child comfortable but also drawing him into group activities. The noisy and/or involved kids shouldn't be the only ones getting the attention. Also, take a look at the kids. They should be happy, active without being out of control, involved in activities, and approaching the staff to share their discoveries and accomplishments. The noise level should be joyous but not deafening.
Good teachers are caring, supportive, observant, and respectful of each child. They should look happy and be friendly. You should feel comfortable there, when you interview and any time thereafter.
- Are parents allowed to drop in and observe at any time? They should be, no question about it.
- Is the center licensed? This is a minimum requirement. Most good centers will also have certification from a national or state accrediting association. A certificate from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) denotes good quality.
- What are the payment options? Can you donate time to offset some costs? What are the late fees? Can you get a discount by paying in advance? Most preschools cost $4,000 to $10,000 per year. Head Start and other programs with public subsidies cost a lot less.
- What are the hours? Are there extended-day options? If so, what happens during that time and who supervises? What is the extra cost?
- What happens if you are late for a pickup?
- What about toilet training? When a child has an accident, how is it handled?
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- What is expected of you in the way of volunteer time? Will you be asked to contribute snacks, supplies, or lunches on a regular basis?
It's tough to see your little one start to have experiences in a world separate from your own, and inevitably you will feel some sense of displacement. But if she is able to participate and enjoy a preschool experience, it's because you've given her the love, support, and confidence to take the next step. So find comfort in that. A little separation will be good for you both and enriching for her. Cool Tool: Is My Child Really Ready?
Every child develops at his own pace, so preschool readinessparticularly social readinesscan blossom at different rates. Some children are more than ready at 18 months, and there are some schools that will take them; other children need to be 3 or 4 before they pick up a mini-backpack or lunch box. Take the following into consideration as you ponder a step up to preschool:
- Can your child work on his own for a brief period? He should be able to focus and complete a puzzle, a drawing, or a block construction by himself without direct supervision or support from an adult. If he can't, try to help him develop this skill at home, working toward the completion of a 5- to 10-minute activity without you in the room.
- Can he do basic self-care? Most centers want kids toilet trained or at least showing strong signs of readiness. (If a child is on the verge, the example of the other kids often works as a motivator.) Can he wash and dry his own hands? Can he eat a snack sitting quietly in a chair or on the floor without constant supervision?
- Can he participate in group activities? While this is a skill he'll be developing in preschool, he has to be ready to start. He should be able to sit in circle time listening to the teacher and the other kids, and to follow stories and activities presented in a group. Library programs, play groups, and organized "moms' morning out" activities are examples of settings where you can observe whether your child can be a part of a group.
- Can he separate from you for a few hours at a time? If your child accepts babysitters or goes readily to day care, there's a good chance he will be ready to separate for a preschool experience, although all children will need some support and time to adjust. However, if your child still clings and screams without letting up, you may want to get him used to shorter separations first. You'll also want to work with the preschool in developing a gradual transition plan.
- Can he manage a preschool schedule? Preschools are busy places, usually with activities, a snack, and outdoor play in the morning and a quiet time or nap in the afternoon. If you have a child who is still a morning napper or has trouble with several activities in the morning, he may not be ready for preschool. Work on the sleep first, keeping him awake through lunch, which should be pushed back every four to five days. Shift his nap to the early afternoon, with a regular nighttime bedtime. Your child's schedule should be pretty regular from day to day. If not, get things more consistent so he'll adjust more easily to the regularities of preschool.