First Person

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.


First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.