Sending a child to school for the first time can be a difficult experience for parents – partly because it is rarely easy to watch a child move on to that next, important milestone, but also because many parents worry that they haven’t made the right decision. Is my child really ready to attend school? Will he succeed, academically, or have I set him up for failure by asking him to achieve things he simply isn’t ready for? Will she fit in, socially, or have I endangered her emotional well-being by expecting things she isn’t mature enough for?
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Parents Are Not Alone
Parents are not alone in their concerns. In fact, the U.S. government’s National Education Goals Panel made school readiness a primary focus of its annual Goals Report beginning in 1995, when it listed the topic first on a list of overarching goals for the United States public education system. In the report the NEGP – a panel of senators, representatives, governors and professionals – outlined the significance of readiness for kindergarten and elementary school and stressed the importance of access to a high-quality Pre-K program to prepare for it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, educators are just as invested in child readiness as you are:
Elizabeth Silverstein – Educational Consultant, Academics Plus
“Establishing strong learning skills and habits early in childhood is the key to building lasting academic success. I would recommend that parents put their child in preschool as soon as they are able. Research shows that birth to 5 years is the time when you can impact your child and their learning the most. Being in a structured learning environment from a young age exposes children not only to early academic skills, but also to skills for classroom behavior and social interaction.
“Academically, being involved in a structured activity will help children develop crucial skills for the classroom such as stamina for learning, attention, and self-regulation. These skills help children to become ‘teachable’ and ready to absorb whatever is presented in the classroom.”
Kindergarten and first-grade teachers agree – children who have attended preschool show a markedly better ability to adjust to the various social, academic and behavioral expectations of elementary school. In particular, children gain exposure to concepts like lining up, cooperating with others, and using items unique to classrooms such as group seating rugs and cubby storage systems. However, with Pre-K entry ages as low as three and with kindergarten entry ages hovering around five, how can you tell your child is ready for the very preschool program that is to prepare him for kindergarten?
“The answer is different for everyone, as each child has different learning needs, but there are signs that will help you know your child is ready. Certain skills, such as going to the bathroom and following basic instructions and routines will help your child adapt to a Pre-K environment more quickly. It’s also helpful if they’re able to be away from the home (and the parent) for extended periods of time, even when exposed to new situations. This may be a struggle at first, but there are many ways to prepare your child. Provide your child with ample opportunity to ask questions, explore their world, and solve problems. This will help them build confidence when asked to learn in a more structured Pre-K environment.”
Sherrie MacLean – RECE and National Director of Operations, Tiny Hoppers
“Every child learns at different times and has different capabilities. There is no exact age for children to take the next step, but there are some indications. Children are ready to enter preschool when they are self-confident and exhibiting skills beyond their current situation. When children are showing that they can master the program they are in, or when they seem to be uninterested and slightly bored with the programming, it may be time to look toward an older setting with new and exciting challenges for them.
“If your child seems to be the oldest in the program and the teachers are recognizing that they are advanced, it’s time to look for something to enhance their education and keep their desire for learning as exciting as possible. When your child can independently remove shoes, hang up clothes, sit for a short period of time, speak with others to be able to reach an agreement, or be helpful, these are good signs they are ready to move on as well.”
“Most probably a child is ready for Pre-K if he is potty trained and can independently take care of himself regarding other activities like dressing, eating, washing hands, etc. If the child is not potty trained during the day and heavily depends on others for basic needs maybe he can have problems adjusting to Pre-K as such things would be expected. Developmentally speaking, at 4 years old (the typical age for pre-K) children are capable of being independent in these matters. Sometimes it is emotions that interfere with development (If the child is having problems with this issue and you are worried, please contact your pediatrician for a proper referral).
“Another important developmental milestone that a child must have achieved in order to succeed at Pre-K would be language in both ways. One being the ability to understand simple questions (what, where, who, etc.), and the second to be able to respond. The child should be able to verbally communicate and that implies that she understands what is said to her and to respond in consequence. This doesn’t mean that all children must be speaking like crazy, understanding a kid’s personality is also important. Some are more talkative than others, but what it’s important is that they are able to effectively communicate with others.”
Child Readiness as a Multifaceted Concept
As you can see, a child’s readiness for preschool does not hinge on a single – or a set of – academic standards. Rather, readiness is multifaceted, a philosophy mirrored by the NEGP when it proposed other indicators of school readiness. These areas addressed the physical well-being of the child and its effects on motor development, socio-emotional development and the ability to integrate into the classroom environment, ability to communicate – including the languages used at home – and cognition, or the ability to learn and process knowledge.
It can seem daunting to ensure your child achieves not only one, but several different areas of readiness. However, this “whole-child” approach to readiness simply highlights the “whole-child” approach to Pre-K taken by the vast majority of preschools across the country. Although we now know that four and five-year-olds can – and do – learn to read in preschool settings quite frequently, preschools are using play-based learning with equipment like play kitchens, classroom gardens, and art furniture to tap into the innate drive to explore and learn while doing so.
“In preschool, children learn about the world through play. Subject areas aren’t separate in their minds or in the classroom. The objects preschoolers find on a nature walk, like feathers, rocks and leaves, might help them figure out math concepts like “big, bigger, and biggest” or motivate them to visit the book corner to find out more about birds. Teachers may introduce children to basic concepts such as shapes, letters, and colors, but preschool is about learning much more than what a circle looks like. It’s where children first develop a relationship with learning.
“Preschool teachers focus on language, math, science, and social studies. For literacy, preschoolers will hear stories read aloud, spend time talking with classmates, and learn to put their thoughts and feelings into words. Writing is often scribbling but shapes that resemble letters begin to emerge and children will learn to write their names. Some programs will start teaching sight words. Numbers will be used to count as well as differentiate shapes, often using art. Patterns will also be taught. Preschoolers often love to explore so teaching science revolves around observing and experimenting as they read about animals and play with rocks, leaves, and grow grass. They’ll test what sinks and floats in the water table. Social studies is introduced through learning about their role in the world, conflict resolution, taking turns, and helping to clean up.”
“I believe that with the right combination of school environment, teacher and parental support, any child can be ready for preschool! I’ve never met a child that I felt somehow was innately not “ready” for preschool.
“Avoid schools that put too heavy an emphasis on academics or sitting still before kindergarten age. If there is too strong a focus on trying to push numbers and letters on young children, this is not beneficial for your child and I would look elsewhere. Early childhood learning needs to focus on social and emotional development and encouraging the imagination. Trying to bring in academics before a child’s imagination is allowed to flourish will stunt them overall in the long run.
“I personally don’t draw a strong line between daycare and preschool (but I am sure others closer to this industry might use these terms differently). For me, when a child goes somewhere to learn, that is their school. Whether the main focus is receiving care and spending social time, as in learning how to eat, nap and play away from home, or once they begin learning about things like shapes, colors and seasons of the year, they are learning. So, it makes sense to call that place their school. Ideally in any care and/or learning environment, those subject areas (early academic and social) would be interwoven and well-balanced from the beginning of their educational journey.”
Adam Cole – Co-Director, Grant Park Academy of the Arts
“Waiting until they are “ready” may be a mistake. There are some things children learn in preschool that can’t be taught at home, like interacting with groups of children, being comfortable without parents, following school rules. Some parents worry that because their child shows some trouble transitioning they are not ‘ready,’ when in fact the transitioning (crying, etc.) may simply be their way of learning and processing.
“The question should be whether the child has the inner resources to make the transition: Do they show any signs of independence at home? Can they follow your rules? Can they play with others, or spend time away from you with grandparents or babysitters?”
What Can We Do to Promote Child Readiness?
One of the most common questions parents have is how to help children prepare for the transition to school. Certainly, promoting academic readiness with activities that will prepare your child for similar, classroom-based activities is an excellent start. Reading with your child and allowing learning-directed activities that promote fine-motor skills are a great place to start. However, allowing your child active participation in their own daily personal routines, such as snapping or buttoning clothes, or brushing teeth, will increase motor skills and independence, a crucial aspect of readiness. These skills translate into the everyday, independent routines set by Pre-K programs, such as entering a classroom, hanging items in a cubby, and proceeding to engage in individual and group tasks without the need for reminders from the teacher.
“The most important thing is to learn through play! Put away Pre-K assessments, just look, listen and feel it. And when a little one is talking about going to school, they are likely ready!
“To help all kiddos get ready for Pre-Kindergarten:
- Read with your child every day, more than the twenty minutes suggested time.
- Help your child be independent with chores, as age appropriate.
- Practice large and small, (fine-motor) skills such as throwing a ball, cutting with scissors, using a pencil, etc.
- Have lots of conversations with your child. If you have any concerns about speech, talk to the teacher.
- Counting practice. Count on fingers, pointing to objects or using homemade or dollar store manipulatives, such as plastic counting bears.
- Make your home print- and language-rich, with reading and writing centers. Look around your house, a trip to the Dollar Store or garage sales. Pick up lots of kinds of stickers, paper, markers, paints, magnet letters (cookie sheets) and numbers – stick on, magnet, or other. Make a writing center, any tiny space works. Create a reading area, always ready for a reading. You can use a fort made of blankets, a tent made of sheets, or a bunch of pillows – just make sure to have lots of books.
- Make a trip to the local library as often as possible. Kids love the extra learning activities many libraries offer, too.
- Limit screen time and turn off the television, instead doing developmentally appropriate activities together.
- To encourage understanding stories, ask your child to tell you what the story is about (plot!). Ask questions like, ‘Who is the main character?’
- Talk about what day it is and introduce, or practice, days of week, months, etc.
- Follow directions. Play ‘Simon Says,’ etc.
“Offering opportunities in dramatic play, make-believe, wearing costumes is developmentally appropriate for young children who need to spend most of their waking time in play-based activities, in and outdoors. Kids learn best when they are doing hands-on activities so encourage them to have fun learning as you get them schoolhouse ready.”
Ensuring the School Environment Is Fit for Your Child
It appears that everyone – teachers, administrators, parents, and even the federal government through the NEGP – is becoming aware of the importance of child readiness for the school setting. Studies support this school of thought, and show that entering school with readiness across a broad set of traits. Academic skills, socio-emotional maturity, and self-control, can impact a child’s later school achievement.
However, if your child appears ready for Pre-K emotionally, socially, physically and academically, and enters a school environment in which he or she must sit in a standard chair for long periods of time, copy from a whiteboard, or perform other developmentally inappropriate tasks, the question no longer lies with the child’s readiness but the program’s. In particular, if your child has a developmental delay, sensory disorder, or attention disorder such as ADD or ADHD, take a close look at the expectations the school will have for him or her. Before enrolling your child, visit the school or schedule an interview to determine the school’s degree of child readiness. Child-ready schools will be prepared for children who need accommodations and will have items such as sensory tables, wobble chairs, and other adaptive tools at hand.
“I would argue that a child is never really “ready” for [school]. Instead ask yourself the following questions:
- What kinds of experiences do I want for my child before they are school age?
- If I were to choose a program, what elements do I want it to include for my child?
- Will I send him/her full-time or part-time?
“When looking for a program, interview several providers. Have a list of questions prepared, and most of all listen to your gut. Most families know within the first few minutes of the interview whether or not the program is a good fit for them. The caregiver should be warm, loving, patient and have a clear understanding of child development.
Most young children learn best through play, so don’t worry about finding a program that pushes academics at this time. Another thing to consider is how many children are in the group and if your child will be able to develop a relationship with the caregiver. Sending your child off to kindergarten with skills such as self-control, empathy, kindness and direction following is much more valuable than knowing their letter sounds and numbers.”
A child’s readiness for Pre-K is not determined by a static set of requirements; instead, readiness is a fluid, multifaceted assessment of a variety of components. In general, children ready for Pre-K display some enthusiasm for going to school, show an interest in learning about academic topics, have at least some personal independence, fine-motor, and gross-motor skills, and have a fair degree of socio-emotional maturity in order to follow routines and engage with peers. However, modern Pre-K programs approach all of these factors through play-based learning. Experts agree that even children on the cusp of readiness can benefit from school as soon as you can enroll them.
Doing what you can at home to help nurture your child’s independence, motor skills, and curiosity about academic pursuits will encourage enthusiasm toward school and enhance school efforts toward both academic and social learning. In the same vein, ensuring that the school you choose for your child is well-equipped to handle his or her particular social, physical, or behavioral needs is key to providing a good Pre-K experience that will continue to show benefits through Kindergarten and beyond.