Starting school is one of the biggest events in a young child’s life. It can also be a confusing time for parents because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule about when a child should start preschool. This leaves parents wondering when and if their children should go to preschool based on several variables, including how old they are or whether or not they are “potty-trained.”
There are numerous checklists available for parents to use to gauge whether or not their children are ready for preschool. However, since all children develop at their own pace, these lists can give parents a false impression of how their child would fare at school.
For example, even if a child meets all the criteria, it may still not be the best time for him to start school based on his emotional development. If a child doesn’t meet all the criteria, parents can become concerned that he is “falling behind” and may put undue stress and pressure on themselves and him to “become ready.” This focus on “readiness” can obscure what should really guide parents’ decision-making.
Parents should instead focus on whether their children would feel secure and comfortable attending school. If parents adopt the goal of preschool being a place where children learn to like school and feel happy and competent there, then they can make a decision about when to send their child to preschool that is based on the child’s well-being and ongoing development.
So, how can you determine whether your child will be comfortable starting preschool? It can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
Is my child comfortable separating from me?
Your child may be ready for preschool if she is comfortable separating from you for short periods of time. For example, if she is happy to go to a friend’s house to play or she likes to go with her aunt to the playground. However, remember that even children who are used to separating from their parents may still be apprehensive about transitioning to school.
Because separation from you is a central part of your child’s introduction to school, this process needs to be handled with a lot of care and sensitivity. Providing a “gentle separation” when a child starts preschool is important. This involves parents being allowed and encouraged to remain with their child until she feels comfortable letting them go. Doing this ensures that she is not forced into accepting separation from her parents before she is ready to do so. This in turn also preserves your trusting relationship with your child and helps her develop a positive attitude toward school. By staying with her until she is ready to separate, you can ensure that your child experiences school as a place where she can feel confident, happy, and eager to learn.
Does my child enjoy being with other children?
If your child has been around other children frequently, such as living with siblings, in play groups, or at the park, you probably have an idea of how he responds to other kids their age. Observing how well he plays and interacts with siblings, neighbors, and cousins can give you some insight on how they would like being in preschool.
Has my child chosen to use the toilet?
Not all preschools require children entering preschool to be “toilet-trained,” especially if they are 3 years old or younger or if they have special needs. However, most programs for 4-year-olds and for public pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) require that children no longer wear diapers.
However, the transition from diapers to the toilet is dependent on the child’s own development. Similar to walking, talking, and reading, a child will choose to do these things according to her own timetable. Giving your child the freedom to decide to use the toilet increases her sense of competence and lessens the conflicts that can erupt if you insist on her being trained to use the toilet by a specific age.
After considering these factors, you may decide that waiting to start preschool is in your child’s best interest. Remember that all children develop at their own pace and there's no rush to start preschool. As explained in Smart Love, The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., “When your child starts school is much less important than how she feels when she is there. Because this will be your child’s first introduction to school, try to do everything you can to ensure that she will enjoy it.”
The best way to prepare your child to start school really doesn’t have much to do with what your child knows how to do by a certain age. Instead, it’s more important to understand your child’s development and focus on your relationship with your child. When he feels secure in your relationship, the milestones needed to be comfortable at school will come naturally and on his own timetable.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999
Is Your Child Ready to Start Preschool?, Amanda Rock, verywellfamily.com, January, 13, 2021.