If you’re new parents with a baby or raising young children, then you’ve likely discussed when and where to send your little ones to preschool. What’s required, what will your child’s day look like, what sort of gains will your child make each year? We asked several preschool directors to give us the lay of the land, and also consulted NAEYC, the National Association of Early Childhood Educators, an accrediting body for early childhood centers.
We spoke with early childhood directors Deborah Isom with Presbyterian Day School and Lindsey Chase with Memphis Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Center. Here is what they shared.
Why are children attending preschool at age 2 or 3?
Preschool used to be reserved for 4-year-olds, as a primer to kindergarten. But as more parents have needed full-time care for their children, private schools have begun to develop programs for 2- and 3-year-olds. While called preschool, these classrooms won’t share the same academic goals as a 4-year-old classroom. At age 2, children are just beginning to expand their vocabulary as they associate sounds with objects (“brown cow”). By age 4, they’re stringing together complete sentences and using words in different contexts (“I saw a brown cow on my grandma’s farm and at the zoo.”) Preschool helps bridge those gaps and paves the way for kindergarten readiness.
Learning takes place, but shouldn’t children be playing instead?
Yes, play is the work of the young child. You want to see classroom activities that engage children in a number of different ways. Centers should focus on dramatic play (costumes, puppets), structured play, manipulatives, reading, art, and science. You also want your child to have regular outdoor time, which can help develop gross motor skills and expose children to the natural world. Centers may be teacher-facilitated for 2s and 3s, becoming more independent for those turning 4.
Most early classrooms should also be introducing small doses of academics, with subjects like color, shape, and number recognition, counting, and an introduction to letter recognition. Young children shouldn’t be expected to know their letters or write, says Lindsay Chase with the JCC. That will come as they prepare for kindergarten. “It’s important to be realistic about what’s appropriate for the age of the child,” adds Isom. “Parents miss how critical it is for kids to explore and learn from their environment, not necessarily that they know by rote the alphabet.”
How will preschool help my child’s social development?
Your young child will gradually be expected to follow simple rules and to pay attention from five to 15 minutes at a time, says Isom. Overall, preschool helps young, naturally egocentric kids learn how to exist with their peers and teachers in a classroom. Part of that experience includes learning how to take turns, stand in line, follow directions, and use words (instead of acting out) to express themselves.
Even at age 2, children are beginning to work on self-help skills. You’ll notice your child beginning to assert her independence. During this year, she should be learning how to dress herself, wash her hands, follow simple, one- or two-step commands, and listen.
Is toilet training expected for 2-year-olds?
Many schools are now helping parents with toileting issues. Ask your school or day care center what their expectations are. And remember that strides made at school won’t be maintained if you don’t follow a similar routine at home.
How long should the school day run?
Many schools offer a range of programs that are half- or full-days, five days a week. For some, scheduling depends on the needs of the parents. Be sure to ask about the flexibility of the program. Centers also may offer before- and after-care for an additional fee.
What are expectations per discipline?
Much of teaching children at this age focuses on helping students learn self-control. Isom says they have changed the conversation they have with students at her school to focus more on what it means to make a strong choice versus a weak choice. They also link consequences to poor choices. “What we’ve found is that a child doesn’t learn that much from time-outs. They sometimes need to cool down, but they also need the education piece to help teach them how to self-correct,” she says.
When should i inquire about enrollment?
Most schools suggest six months out for a fall enrollment. So if you are considering fall of 2016, you should start the process in the spring.
What are some signs a program might not be a good fit for my child?
Your child is unhappy about going to school. When children are first adjusting to a new environment, some separation anxiety is normal, particularly for a child who is leaving home for the first time. But once your preschooler becomes familiar with his surroundings and begins to bond with caregivers, that problem should resolve itself. If your child shows signs of unhappiness when getting ready for school (upset stomach, crying, etc.), have a conversation with the teacher or caregiver to find out what’s going on in the classroom.
Your child is not excelling academically.
When choosing a school, be sure to consider whether the school’s academic goals are in line with your own. “Have realistic ideas about what your child can do,” says Isom.
Five Things You Can Do to Prepare for Preschool
Work on taking turns. Help your child understand the importance of considering others when waiting for his turn. Developing empathy is a lifelong trait worth cultivating.
Hone listening skills. At the table or in the carpool line, have your child wait to speak until after her brother finishes. When it’s her turn, remind her, “Now it’s your turn to talk. Thank you for being patient and for being such a good listener while your brother was talking.”
Practice sharing. Having friends over to play or working with siblings can teach sharing.
Learn how to take direction. Children who won’t take direction well are at a distinct disadvantage when they come into a preschool environment. Work with your child to help him learn how to follow direction. Consider consequences when he doesn’t do as he’s told. No one wants to handle an unruly child, and such behavior ultimately hurts your child by making life more difficult for him.
Build vocabulary by reading. Reading aloud helps to develop attention span, listening and observation skills, and letter/sound recognition. Make reading interactive by asking questions about each picture, talk about the action or story’s characters, and have your child predict what comes next in the story.