While most preschools will accept your child from the age of two and a half, the decision to enroll him or her is a lot more complicated than that. It should be based more on the developmental stage that your child has reached. Are they socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively ready to meet the challenges that they’ll be confronted with in preschool?
You might be tempted to simplify things, and just use a checklist to judge if your child is ready. However, here’s the truth: to make a proper decision, you must put in the time necessary to do a thorough evaluation of the child. This commitment requires consulting with the responsible adults that’re directly involved in your child's life and care.
The following is a list of questions that will help guide you about your decision. There are no hard and fast rules here, so be advised that you’ll have to supplement the list to get a full picture of the issue.
1. How independent is your child?
While every preschool teacher understands that they’ll need to be very hands-on with their students, your child will be expected to do certain things independently. Your child will need to be potty-trained, and they’ll need to be able to take care of their own hygiene and basic life skills (including feeding themselves and going to sleep without assistance).
2. Has your child spent time away from you?
Separation anxiety can be an issue for many children. If your child has been cared for by other people besides yourself, then they’ll be better prepared to be separated from you during preschool hours. If you’ve been your child's sole caretaker, then you can give them some experience by scheduling some time with one of your relatives.
Some children will adjust to this new situation without any prior time away from you. If your child does feel some unease, you can gradually acclimate them to the new situation by letting them just stay at school for portions of the first few days. This tactic will help reassure them that their new environment will be a fun, new adventure for them.
3. Does your child work well independently?
In preschool, your child will need to work on a lot of projects without much assistance from the teacher. If your child can easily become engrossed in activities at home, then they will do exceptionally well in preschool.
But if your child needs a lot of assistance, then you can start accustoming them to spending a short period of time working independently. While you’re busy with your household chores, they can work on a project. Then slowly increase the time that they must be independent. The trick is always to take small steps—and to not make any changes too abruptly.
4. How does your child fare with group activities?
Preschools will spend a lot of time and effort trying to socialize your child. This effort can take the form of activities like "circle time," when all of the children participate at the same time. This activity will require them to cooperate and interact with the group. During this time, they cannot wander off and explore independently.
If your child hasn't had much experience with group activities, then it’s time to give them this kind of experience. There are many places (such as the library) where children gather to be involved in group play and interactions. You can sign them up for these activities, often at no cost to you. As with all of the experiences that we’ve mentioned above, the trick is to slowly ease the child into the new experience.
5. Can your child keep a regular schedule?
Do you regularly structure your child's day? This tactic is important because every preschool holds to a fairly rigid schedule. They want to both train the children and make them feel comfortable in their environment.
If you keep an erratic schedule at home, then it’s time for you add some structure to your child's day. You can start by scheduling mealtimes and playtimes at the same times every day. You can also develop rituals for daily activities. For instance, bedtime can have a set of ordered activities, which must be done before your child goes to sleep.
6. Does your child have the energy and stamina for preschool?
Preschool days are filled with many things that the children must do and experience. These activities require patience and a certain amount of energy from your child. Some children have boundless energy, so they thrive on moving from one activity to another throughout the day. Other children may be unhappy that they don't set their own agenda, so they tire down if a pace is frenetic.
Another important question is how much naptime your child needs (and when they need it). At preschool, the naps are all scheduled at definite times. They often schedule naptime after lunch. If your child needs more than this one nap (or needs it at a specific time), then you might want to reconsider your decision to send them to preschool now.
You can work on this issue by ensuring that your child gets proper sleep every night. Also, you can train your child to take a nap at the same time that the preschool will give them their nap.
7. Be clear about why you want to send your child to preschool.
What are your goals for sending your child to preschool? If your child isn't ready for preschool yet, then there might be other options for you. You may be able to send them to daycare while they’re developing the skills they need to go to preschool.
If you’re worried that your child won't be ready for the rigors of kindergarten, there are alternate ways to prepare them without a lot of time in preschool. Some daycare facilities are particularly good at preparing children for kindergarten, or you can actually prepare your child for kindergarten at home. The important thing is that your child acquires certain skills, not that they attend a preschool.
The most important aspect of your child's preparation for kindergarten is that they have a loving, attentive caregiver. So their caregiver can actually take the place of a preschool.
The appropriate reasons for enrolling your child are that:
1. Your child needs social interaction that they can't get at home.
2. They aren't getting enough stimulation at home or daycare.
3. They are very excited about learning and experiencing new things.
We’ve seen that the decision to enroll your child in preschool is very involved and complicated. The best way to make sure that you make the right decision is to consult with professionals who know the subject. These professionals can include your pediatrician and the staff of the preschool that you’re interested in. It’s always good to get objective advice.
However, the final decision should come down to you. You know your child best, so you can understand their needs better than anyone else.