Children grow up quickly in America. Some child rearing changes are improvements over past practices. Others rob children of the joys of childhood. Fashions for toddlers and young children look very little different from those for teens. At an early age children are exposed to media more appropriate for teens and even adults. Schools demand more of kindergartners than ever before.
Many parents choose to delay the growing up process as long as possible. Providing age-appropriate clothing and entertainment helps. Watching your child's development and learning to introduce new experiences at fitting times is part of effective parenting. Not pushing a child beyond her capacity to succeed builds self-esteem and trust.
Some parents have a concern about whether or not to enroll their child in preschool. They wonder if that is hastening the growing up process. At one time preschool wasn't much of an issue. It constituted a parental choice that did not make a big impact on the child's future schooling. Today the story is different. Children who have not attended preschool or a structured day care program are at a disadvantage when entering kindergarten.
Kindergartens no longer simply provide programs where children learn social and pre- academic skills. With the No Child Left Behind Act, kindergartners are expected to read, write, and perform simple math skills by the end of the academic year. This does not mean that all children are ready to accomplish this or even that they can. It does mean that teachers strive for this goal. They feel challenged as whether to promote a child into first grade if the skills have not been achieved.
Unless parents have the time, the ability, and the patience to teach their children kindergarten readiness skills, preschool is a wise option. Working parents may opt for preschool over day care. Several decades ago the Head Start program was initiated. While subsequent research showed that by third grade any advantages for children who had attended Head Start had been washed out, it clearly showed that children attending the program had an advantage over kindergartners and early primary students who had not. Kindergarten teachers today feel strongly about the importance of children attending either preschool or a pre-kindergarten program.
Evidence for how long attendance is useful is unclear. Certainly most four-year-olds are ready for periods of structured learning time. Some parents enter their two-year-olds in preschool believing that the structure and socialization opportunities benefit their offspring. Parents must look at their own values and the development and needs of their child as they make this important decision.
In most communities preschools abound. For lower income families Head Start and State Preschool are options. Many churches provide educational opportunities. Private preschools are available. Some day care programs offer a structured time where learning activities take place. While personal preference plays a big role in choosing a school for your child, certain things need to be considered. Choosing a licensed preschool or day care assures that at the least, minimum standards must be maintained.
Look for a clean, cheerful environment with unbroken toys and several play/learning stations. Both inside and outside play areas need to have adequate space for the number of children attending. Most states have minimum space requirements. They are often lower than many parents would prefer. Consider your child and use your judgment.
If the school accepts toddlers, ask about naptime. Does each child have her own cot or blanket? Do you or the school provide them? How frequently are they cleaned?
Ask how many adults are assigned to teach or supervise each age group. Most states have student/teacher ratio requirements. The most effective preschools have fewer children per adult than mandated. For a class of two-year-olds, no more than six children supervised by one adult is advisable. For four-year-olds, no more than eight is optimal. Again, you know your child. During your observation, watch the supervision and see if it satisfies you. What is the training of the staff? Is the administrator on site? Is the staff warm and caring? Do they speak respectfully and in conversational tones? Is independence encouraged? Are children guided toward success in all activities? Are play rules made clear? Is the discipline used in alignment with your thinking?
Take time to visit several preschools and observe their programs carefully. An effective one provides a gathering time, often called circle time, in the morning where the children sing and move. This may be followed by more structured time for stories, finger plays, and talking about numbers and words. Integrated into this segment are arts and crafts. A snack and outside time follow the focused period. Some preschools serve lunch and provide naptime and quiet activities. If the school offers an afternoon session, it follows the same routine as the morning.
Parents can find preschools that begin teaching academics to children as young as two. This is not necessary. Most very young children do better with a program that provides the opportunity to interact appropriately with other children, explore new activities, and experiment with crayons, paints, clay, and other craft tools.
Until they are about four-years-old many preschoolers are not ready for school five days a week. Can the parent choose how many days a week the child attends? Can she attend either a morning or afternoon session? Can days of absence be made up? Is school in session during the breaks that public schools observe? Take into consideration your needs as well as the child's when making your school decision.
Head Start and State Preschools generally serve lower income families. Some parochial and secular private programs have a sliding fee scale based on the family's income. Others have set fees based on the number of days a week the child attends and whether she attends full or half day. Preschools may charge an extra fee for non-potty-trained toddlers.
The verdict is in. Educators feel that preschool attendance prepares children socially, emotionally, and academically for kindergarten in positive ways. If you want to send your child to preschool and choose one carefully, she will happily attend and enjoy the experience. She will be prepared for the demands of today's kindergarten.
If you choose not to enter her, provide the experiences at home that will assist in kindergarten readiness. Play with her every day. Set up playtimes with other children. Give her age-appropriate choices. Use books, games, art, and music. Encourage outdoor play. Provide props for pretend play. Support exploration and curiosity. Regularly attend a structured activity like library story hour so that she learns to pay attention for a sustained period of time.
Whether you send your children to preschool or not, loving them, caring for them, and making sure they are safe and healthy are the requisites of effective parenting. For more information on kindergarten readiness, refer to the article "Lets Take a Look at Kindergarten Readiness" in THE INFORMED PARENT archives.