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Ask an Expert: At what age should my son attend preschool?

EdNews Parent experts Ann Morrison, Karla Scornavacco and Robert “Kim” Herrell respond to a question from Amy of Boulder:

Q. At what age should my son attend pre-school? He is 2 now. We have a nanny take care of him during the day and I worry he is not getting the preparation necessary to help him acclimate in kindergarten.

Ann Morrison: Many parents wonder about kindergarten and how to prepare their kids. Although school attendance in kindergarten is not required by Colorado law, I think it is among the most important years of a child’s life. Like Robert Fulghum’s poem that begins, “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten”, some highly important lessons are learned there. Many academic, social, and behavioral areas develop in this time of a child’s life. However I will only address literacy development here.

It can be easy to think that school is the first place kids learn conventional literacy, but actually literacy development begins at birth. For example, when you pull into the restaurant parking lot how does your son know whether he is getting a Happy Meal or you are getting a latte? He sees the “golden arches” of McDonalds or the green and black circle of Starbucks and knows that those logos have meaning, which is an area of literacy called logography. Soon he will begin to notice the difference between text and pictures on his storybook page and come to understand that the words that you say when you read to him come from the text, not the pictures. All of these experiences are part of a stage of reading development called emergent literacy. A strong foundation in emergent literacy provides the foundation for instruction in conventional literacy taught in schools.

Regardless whether your son spends his days with an adult caretaker or in a pre-school setting, what is most important is that the interaction he is having is high quality. High quality interaction includes lots of oral language experiences, extended time for play with a variety of toys, lots of “lap time” with an adult reading a wide selection of books, and plenty of “face time” with peers and adults for talking and eye contact.

You may want to work in a part-day preschool experience, but, if you believe that your son is having rich language and text experiences with his nanny already then I don’t believe there is any reason to change his care.

Several publications from the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) provide suggestions for developmentally appropriate language and literacy activities for parents and caretakers. Two Shining Stars booklets, one for toddlers and another for preschoolers, and another booklet titled Literacy Begins at Home are all good examples of resources at the NIFL.

Karla Scornavacco: In the state of Colorado, children can start “preschool” at the age of 2.5. Some preschools will save a spot for your child, and welcome him into the school the day he turns 2½. It’s the first “half birthday” that many parents of young children celebrate…while others dread, and others aren’t quite sure what to make of it. Preschool is indeed a path to kindergarten preparation. The trick, though, is figuring out what your son needs right now as a 2-year-old, and what works best for your family and work situation. A 2-year-old’s needs can be quite different from a 5- or 6-year-old’s needs.

The notion that there is one perfect, “it-must-be-this-way-path” to kindergarten is absurd. So, take a breather. We, as parents, are going to be dealing with all sorts of parents who are going to choose school options for their children that do not match what we want for our families. We may second-guess ourselves. We may over-think options. That’s OK. It’s part of the journey of being a parent.

So, what does your 2-year-old son “need” in order to be prepared for kindergarten? Here’s a brief list. There are multiple ways to meet these milestones.

  • Recognize rhyming sounds
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Follow two-step directions (e.g. get out the scissors, then fold the paper).
  • Cut with scissors
  • Trace basic shapes
  • Begin to share with others
  • Start to follow rules
  • Manage bathroom needs
  • Button shirts, pants, coats, and zip up zippers
  • Separate from parents without being upset
  • Speak understandably
  • Talk in complete sentences of five to six words
  • Look at pictures and then tell stories
  • Identify the beginning sound of some words
  • Identify some alphabet letters
  • Recognize some common sight words like “stop”
  • Sort similar objects by color, size, and shape
  • Recognize groups of one, two, three, four, and five objects
  • Bounce a ball

How can we know that children are ready for school? According to national studies, teachers are more likely to expect your son to be able to pay attention and communicate his needs when he enters kindergarten. Other parents, though, are more likely to focus on academic skills, such as counting to 20 or knowing all 26 letters. There are two overlapping priorities at work here: your child’s socio-emotional development, and his academic development. You and your nanny can take care of most, if not all, of your son’s pre-kindergarten “academic needs.” The socio-emotional part, though, requires that your son be around kids his age at least a few times a week. See this pamphlet from the Colorado State Library on kindergarten readiness, or this longer document on the same thing from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Robert K. Herrell: As recent education summits/conferences have pointed out, preschool has an incredibly positive effect on the success of a student in school. Yet opinions remain mixed on the best age for children to begin preschool.

Most preschool providers have a checklist of readiness behaviors. You might check out websites of preschools to see if they provide any guidance. And, as you visit and observe different preschool centers, ask to see their list of preschool readiness traits.

At the top of the list is usually, “Must be potty trained.” Preschool staff know that accidents will happen, and many will have you leave a change of clothes for your child. They are not interested, though, in taking the time away from the other children to perform this service for you. Please don’t rush or force potty training, though. Your child will do it when he/she is ready.

It is so important to go and visit preschools. Look for a clean, warm and caring environment. There should be lots of talk, but not yelling. Is the staff up with the children modeling behaviors, or are they sitting on one side of the room chatting? And if you liked a preschool an older child went to, go and observe it again. The staff and atmosphere may have changed. Take the time to select what is best for your child.

Many preschools have options for the amount of time a child can attend: half-day, full-day, two days a week, etc. Let your child build up their “time” as they are ready, at their individual developmental pace. “Can I go see Ms. V. and my friends today?” This would be a signal for more time at preschool. Some also have a late shift for those parents who work later hours. Ask about what options they offer.

If you are looking for a pre-kindergarten program, it is a slightly different decision process. Does the preschool understand the kindergarten readiness skills at your local school district? How exactly will the pre-K program work with your child to build his readiness? A quality pre-K program will be able to give you specific examples. Many such programs will only allow your child to participate for one year, so it is best to begin such programs when your child can seamlessly move right into kindergarten.

When to send your child to preschool depends a lot on your own child’s development in those wonderful years between 2 and 5. Selecting the right environment for him is also crucial. Is it as important as the college they will go to? Maybe more. It ranks up there with books and reading in the home as favorable indicators of future success. As parents, one of our jobs is to open as many doors for our children as we can.

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