Deciding whether your child is ready for preschool can be a lengthy and anxiety-inducing process. There are a number of factors to take into account, including how ready you are as a parent. Identify whether your child is able to take the big step to preschool by considering the following criteria.
She can be separated from you
Before attending preschool, ensure that your child is comfortable to spend some time away from you. While some school anxiety is normal, if preschool is the first time you and your child are apart it may result in her clinging to you at the door, or running after you, wailing, into the parking lot. This can be distressing for your child, and disconcerting for other learners who are also trying to settle. Try leaving a transitional object like a familiar fluffy toy with your child during the day – this may help her feel connected to you. Some schools might not allow toys from home to be played with, but ask if it can be kept in your child’s bag and she can go and touch or look at it every now and then during the day.
She is comfortable with routine
Generally, most preschools have a routine that is followed each day. This usually starts with informal morning play while everybody arrives, morning ring, time spent in various areas of the school, break time, tidy-up time, story time and quiet time (which can become nap time for some children). Make sure your child is comfortable with a schedule of sorts before she starts preschool. You could try practising a routine for activities and tasks your child completes at home.
She has stamina for the school day
If your child takes regular naps during the day, she may struggle with the demands of preschool. There are certain expectations for a child during the day, and napping may not form part of the schedule (except potentially at the end of the day during story time). School is supposed to be a stimulating environment, and if a child takes naps during the day, she can lose out on valuable learning, socialising and development.
She is healthy
Being in a new environment with new people can result in your child falling ill. For your child’s sake, as well as that of her peers, ensure that she is reasonably healthy before starting school. Some illnesses are unavoidable, but if your child suffers from an autoimmune disease, infections, or viruses, rather wait until she’s healthier.
She can communicate her needs
While it isn’t essential that your child be verbal, she needs to be able to communicate her needs in some way – whether through actions or words. At preschool level, your child needs to be able to tell her teacher when she needs the toilet, when she’s feeling cold, or when somebody has upset her. She may not have the right words to express all of these things, but some ability to communicate her needs or wants is necessary. If your child uses euphemisms to describe needing to go to the toilet, for example, let her teacher know these terms so she can assist your child.
She can interact with other children
Preschool is a place where your child will learn to socialise with others and make new friends, but it’s important that your child is able to interact with others. She may be a shy child who is slow to warm, but try to encourage some socialising and teach her some social skills before preschool. If your child is an only child, or has had little interaction with others her own age, it may be a difficult transition for her, as attention is shared among a class of children, all with unique personalities. In addition, if your child has a tendency to bite or fight with other children, it’s best to let her teacher know ahead of time.
She can follow instructions
A child’s ability to follow instructions may be affected by her ability to concentrate or her cognitive capacity. This is difficult to control, but children should be able to follow certain basic instructions, such as “please sit down”, “come inside for story time”, or “please wash your hands”. This is considered a developmental milestone for children of preschool-going age. Unfortunately, in South Africa, most teachers don’t have assistants in their class, and can’t always repeat instructions individually to their learners.
She is toilet trained
Many preschools will only enrol children if they are toilet trained. Other schools are more lenient, but for your child’s, and her teacher’s sake, it’s best that she is toilet trained prior to attending preschool. Even if your child is toilet trained, it’s wise to send her to school with an additional pair of underwear – accidents can happen, and it’s better to be prepared and save your child any embarrassment.
She exhibits independent behaviour
Your child needs to be able to dress and feed herself. “Tying shoelaces and doing up buttons or zips are too complicated for a child entering preschool,” says Karen Smith, a preschool teacher from Pietermaritzburg. She urges parents to dress their children in “easy, child-friendly clothing”, such as shoes with Velcro instead of laces, elasticated pants instead of zips, and T-shirts instead of button-up tops. This makes life easier for the teacher, who doesn’t have time to tend to 24 pairs of shoelaces, but also for your child, who can feel confident in her ability to dress herself. A child’s eating habits need not be perfect – she may be a messy eater, or hate the crusts on bread – but at snack time, she should be able to feed herself. More in-depth dining etiquette can be taught at a later stage.
She displays some fine-motor dexterity
Julia Harrison* and Wendy Botha*, two preschool teachers with more than 30 years’ experience explain that children should have some fine-motor capacity before attending preschool. “Too often, children arrive at preschool with no prior knowledge of holding pencils, crayons or scissors, and with little fine-motor dexterity,” they say. Their understanding is that many children are spending too much time on tablets, where “swiping” is the only form of finger and fine-motor movement. Tablets can be useful when it comes to educational games, but shouldn’t take the place of other activities such as puzzles or drawing where fine-motor skills can be developed. Expose your child to these activities and tools prior to preschool.
Are you ready for your child to attend preschool?
As a parent, it can be difficult to accept that your little baby is growing up and ready for preschool, especially if it’s your first child, because there are many uncertainties. What is important is that you keep your anxiety and feelings in check. If your child sees that you’re worried or upset by her absence, she could feel worried or upset too. It’s common for parents to feel guilty about sending their child to preschool, but it’s important to remember that it is a beneficial space for your child, offering opportunities for her development. Keep in touch with the teacher to find out how your child is doing, but allow your little one to gain some independence and freedom, and grow with your encouragement, even when she’s apart from you.