A growing body of evidence suggests that a high-quality preschool helps boost kids' academic and social skills and puts them at an advantage for kindergarten and beyond. For parents of 3- and 4-year-olds, that means looking around for a good program, and wondering: What if my child isn't ready for preschool?
Although there are certain skills a child should ideally have before entering a preschool program, the good news is that you don't necessarily have to keep your child home if they don't meet all the benchmarks. "Any preschool should be ready for any child," says Susan Friedman, senior director of publishing and professional learning at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization that promotes high-quality learning for all children from birth through age 8. "There's a wide range of ways children develop, and they don't all necessarily develop at the same rate. In a preschool setting, a teacher should be able to individualize what's happening in a way that reaches all children."
Friedman points out that for some families, preschool is the best or only option because of the parents' work schedules. In that case, both parents and teachers can work together to bolster the child's readiness skills. Other parents may feel that a half-day school program — or keeping their child home — is more appropriate for their child's needs. But it's worth noting that children who attend preschool are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don't, as reported by NPR.
Here are some of the signs that your child isn't quite ready for the big transition, and the solutions to try for each.
1. They have trouble separating from you.
Some children have little or no trouble saying goodbye to Mom and Dad and transitioning into the classroom, while others may cry, cling, or try to get away. Both reactions are perfectly normal. Some anxiety and homesickness are to be expected at the start of preschool, affirmed PBS Parents, and this may last as long as a few weeks. But that doesn't mean you need to take your child home. "There are tools teachers and parents can use to help a child say goodbye," says Friedman. One technique she cites is having the child hold a picture of their family as the teacher encourages them to join in the class activities.
If your child hasn't had much experience in being apart from you, give them some practice in the weeks before school starts by having a sitter or other trusted adult watch them while you go out for an hour or two.
2. They're not fully toilet-trained.
By age 3 or 4, most children can use the toilet independently most of the time. Occasional accidents are to be expected, and preschools typically ask parents to leave a change of clothes in their child's cubby. But some schools have a no-touch policy and won't accept students who aren't yet out of pull-ups. If your chosen preschool is one of them, use the summer weeks to practice potty training. Try using underwear exclusively during the day; it's less comfortable to wear when soiling occurs, and so your child may be more motivated to use the toilet.
3. They have trouble following directions.
A preschooler should be able to respond most of the time to simple one- or two-step directions such as "Sit on the rug" or "Put on your jacket and line up at the door." If that's an issue for your child, give them more practice at following instructions and completing tasks independently, suggested Preschool Inspirations.
4. They're easily overwhelmed.
A preschool room is a lively place, with lots of kids, noise, and activities. Some children thrive on this kind of hubbub, while others become shy or tearful. Children with sensory processing issues are especially sensitive and may be prone to meltdowns in a preschool environment, explained the Child Mind Institute.
Depending on your child and your school options, you might investigate half-day preschool programs if you think a longer day will be too difficult for your child to handle. Or, if your choices are more limited, you might try exposing your child to other busy environments before preschool, such as a music class or a play group.
5. They don't get along well yet with other children.
In preschool, children learn and engage in such social-emotional skills as turn-taking, cooperative play, conflict resolution, and recognizing others' emotions. It's not always easy for a preschooler; every child has their "I won't share" moments. But a child who consistently has trouble interacting with peers — pushing, hitting, biting, grabbing toys — may need more practice in socialization at home before the start of school. "The school setting is a great way for children to develop those social skills," explains Friedman, "but there are experiences children can do at home to prepare them for school." For instance, you can plan a playtime with your child where you model appropriate behavior: "I'm going to play with the blue car, and then I'm going to give you a turn."
6. They can't handle the school schedule.
A full-day pre-K schedule may begin as early as 7:30 or 8:00 AM and end six hours later. Preschoolers also need to be able to transition easily between activities throughout the day; for instance, cleaning up the blocks at the end of free-choice play time and then lining up to go to the playground. To make this skill easier for your child, establish a predictable schedule at home and create a routine between activities, such as washing hands before meals or singing a clean-up song after playtime.
A preschool's day often includes a set naptime, but it may not be as long as the one your child is used to. If that's the case, "the teacher and parent should work together and figure out the best solution," says Friedman. Perhaps you'll need to put your child to bed earlier, or perhaps the teacher has options for children who need more rest than the schedule normally allows.
7. They can't communicate clearly.
A child doesn't have to be a chatterbox to succeed at preschool, but they should ideally be able to express their needs, either through words or signs. Between ages 3 and 4, a child's speech should be understandable most of the time, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; they should also be able to put together short sentences and answer simple who-what-where questions. If you have concerns about your child's communication skills, talk to your pediatrician before enrolling your child in school. If your child is being professionally evaluated for language delays, let your child's school know, and ask what strategies they have for teaching students with communication issues.